The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

Finally found at Chapters, Toronto

Johanna Skibsrud’s first novel, The Sentimentalists, is perhaps the most surprising selection on this year’s Giller Prize shortlist. It was released a year ago, published by a small independent (Gaspereau Press) and attracted little attention. Copies are almost impossible to find — Shadow Juror Alison scooped up three of the four she was able to locate in all of Toronto’s Chapaters stores so the Shadow Jury could read the book — although one would assume that a second printing will have it in stores soon.

While it is a relatively short book (218 pages of decent-sized type), its narrative style and structure make it a very challenging book to read. Skibsrud’s only previous published books were poetry and she has brought that poetic skill to the novel — but added to it both a complexity and uncertainty of story that requires (at least for me) frequent rereading at the sentence or paragraph level to gain some understanding of just what is going on, and even the result of that tends to be murky. This is a book that demands to be read in chunks of 40 pages or so and then put aside for some contemplation.

Let me illustrate with a couple of examples from the opening pages as the author puts some elements of her narrative in place. The narrator, a mature woman, is describing her father’s place in Fargo, North Dakota (“pieced together from two and a half aluminum trailers and deposited in a lot — No. 16 — at the edge of a West Fargo mobile-home park”):

At the end of the corridor was the room my father referred to as the “second library” — the “first” having reached its limit years before. My father was a great reader and a great rememberer of things, though he never remembered anything in the right order, or entirely, and always had just little bits of all the books and poems he’d ever read floating around in his mind. The second library was the most lived-in room of the house and stored (besides the shelves of the books that gave to it its name) the computer, the TV, the exercise bike, and the photographs in piles.

The photographs had been mostly those sent, over the years, by my mother and grandmother, and I knew them all well because they were the same ones kept in albums at my mother’s house. They were of my sister Helen and me: posed for yearly school protraits, or else with our feet up on soccer balls.

That attention to detail (much of it extraneous), coupled with the asides and digressions and the hidden parts that turn out to be essential to the story, is typical of the entire book. Father is fading and his daughters are coming to fetch him and relocate him to Casablanca, Ontario where he will live with Henry, the father of a now-deceased childhood friend. Casablanca is a “new-old town”, its houses constructed to replace those flooded by the St. Lawrence seaway:

It’s a tall upright building, Henry’s house. Constructed on government money to replace his old family home which was one of twelve original houses lost when the dam came through in 1959. Even now, Casablanca is a small town, but before the dam it was not even, properly, a town at all. It was only referred to by its intersecting county roads, and because of this was never officially recorded as being “lost”. It wasn’t until the dam came through that people started calling the place Casablanca. Because of the way that, like in the Bogart film, they had begun to “wait for their release” from a town that — never having fully existed — had already begun to disappear. But then, even after relocation was complete, the name stuck, and came to refer to the new community of government-built houses that got strung along the lake road.

That narrative set-up, in all its detail, will continue for scores of pages — and skip through various periods of past and present — before the reader is allowed to discover that this is a “war” book (I don’t think that is a spoiler since the cover features a uniformed soldier). Even with that expectation in mind, it requires a lot of patience from the reader (I have only included a couple of set-up pieces that are required) before the action of the story begins.

While all of this is taking place on the surface, the author is using the sub-text to establish her over-arching theme — the fragility, unreliability, uncertainty and just plain error of memory as it fades or becomes altered with time (more than once she uses the metaphor of field glasses turned the wrong way round to illustrate time’s effect on memory). Go back to the first quote in this review and you will find the phrase that you should have paid attention to. Later on, here is father to daughter during the one conversation they will have on his war experience:

“I’m a poor — I’m a poor source,” he said. “I’ve a real poor memory for the place.” He paused again and then said quickly, as if with the next sentence he wished to get rid of the thing entirely, “Imagine absolute fucking chaos, then that’s it, you got it.” When I didn’t say anything, he continued. “Honestly, I think you’d be better off watching the movies. Brando. In Apocalypse Now, for instance.”

I thought he was joking and I gave a short laugh. “What?” I said.

“Yeah,” my father agreed, “just like that. Insanity. My stories are all and then, and then, and then, when it didn’t happen like that to me.”

I will admit that The Sentimentalists was a real struggle for me until that theme of the unreliability of memory — not just in small things, but in the much more important areas of family memories, or war memories, or memories of friendship — was established firmly in my mind and gave me something to hang onto. I find that poets who turn to novels tend to write in a prose that simply does not fit my reading style and have a love for detail and metaphor that leaves me equally baffled. It is to Skibsrud’s credit that she maintained enough of my interest that I didn’t simply abandon the book. And unlike so many novels that I seem to have read this year, where the final third lands with a disappointing thud, this one picked up both pace and importance as it moved towards its close.

Still, this is very much a “writer’s” novel where the reader needs to have an admiration for complicated prose and an equally complex narrative — my guess is that the presence of two authors on the Official Giller Jury and their respect of Skibsrud’s achievement in prose is the reason that it made the shortlist. My comparison would be to one of last year’s Giller finalists, Anne Michael’s The Winter Vault, and not just because both novels feature the destruction caused by the St. Lawrence Seaway. If you loved that book, I am sure you will find much to like in this one — if it passed you by, I suspect The Sentimentalists will as well.

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27 Responses to “The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud”

  1. Shelley Says:

    Ah: when I first saw that cover, I thought it was someone in military uniform. Although my own work doesn’t fit into this genre, I think at this point we could use more novels about war, possibly by vets, and fewer about upper-class angst. Just a thought.

  2. kimbofo Says:

    I did wonder if you would compare her work to Anne Michael seeing as they are both Canadian poets who have written novels. I’ve not read The Winter Vault but I did like Fugitive Pieces…

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shelley: I have to disagree — there is a ton of war fiction out there, far more than “upper class angst” in my opinion.
    kimbofo: Having said what I just did about war fiction, Skibsrud’s poetic sense does serve her well in the “war” sections of this book where the story becomes even murkier and uncertain. I liked this book much better than The Winter Vault but not as well as The Fugitive Pieces (which is, I might note, yet another book with a war theme).

  4. bookermt Says:

    Kevin
    I think your review perfectly sums up many of my thoughts on this book which I finished in the early hours of this morning.
    At times I found her prose style to be daunting and it certainly takes some getting used to. However, at other times I found myself really getting into the narrative and finding her writing to be quite scintillating.
    I agree completely about how the novel, unlike many this year, gains in strength as it progresses and some of the passages in the war were very moving indeed.
    There are I think better novels about this war yet I liked the uncertainty of the narrative, the father’s unreliability and the (unless I was being really dim) openendedness of the final conclusion.
    I think it is a novel which greatly benefits from a slow reading and at times found myself re-reading certain sections to make sure that I had really grasped the meaning of what I had read.
    It is a real “reader’s” novel by which I mean that despite its brevity it is not a book to be rushed but I would urge readers of quality fiction to give it a go with the proviso that it is a novel which requires much contemplation at all stages.
    I was also impressed by the quality paper my copy came on and it is an excellent advert for smaller publishing houses.
    Can it win?
    Well I’ve not been able to read the others so I can only guess but I would say that is certainly good enough and I can see at least one of the judges being a strong adocate.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    bookermt: I know how many books that you read, so I am heartened that we had the same response to this one. Your comment underlines to me the importance of what for many readers may be the need for a different approach to this book — it does “require much contemplation at all stages” to be appreciated. I don’t think it is perfect by any means, but if you can find a rhythm there is much to recommend. I am still scratching my head over the conclusion — did Skibsrud write herself into a corner that she could not get out of in the conventional sense, or did she deliberately move into a non-traditional form to underline the uncertainty that is at the core of her story.

    Thanks also for the observation about the physical quality of the book — Gaspereau may be small but they are obviously committed to quality work. The trade paper cover is simple but on very high quality stock and the interior pages are equally impressive stock. You would be hard pressed to tell that my copy has been read — unlike many of this year’s UK Booker hardbook where the spine had a tilt (I understand it is called “cocking”) of more than 1/4′ after even the most careful reading. I’d like to find someone in the printing trade who can explain when North American quality hardbacks stand up to reading so much better than UK ones do. Interestingly, trade paperbacks don’t show any difference and with mass market editions the quality edge, if there is one, seems to go to the UK>

  6. bookermt Says:

    Kevin
    Your comment about the ending is indeed one I have been contemplating and at the time of reading I was not certain it wasn’t merely a device to extract herself from the corner she had to some extent boxed herself into. However, your question raises the thought that it may well have been intentional from the outset, I’d like to think so as there is quality to this novel which suggests to me that this may well be the case. Her father was a veteran and his voice is acknowledged by the author so I’m also left contemplating how much the ending is “unfinished business” on his behalf. I’d like to hear the author on this. Has there been any interviews with the shortlisted writers??
    Your question about production quality is also interesting. Sadly with increasing downward pressure on costs very very few books are stich bound these days but are merely “compressed”, not a correct term, by glue at a severe amount of pressure at high speed. I’ve actually seen this process at work and the speed is quite amazing. A simple B&W paperback print run can produce upto 5000 copies in about an hour. A hardback with dust jacket takes only a little bit longer.
    I don’t know what hardback sales are like in the US but I’m guessing economy of scale can allow for higher quality production at a similar unit cost to that of a much lower print run to suit the UK market. Certainly the cloth board on US hardback is usually of much higher quality than in the UK and I also wonder about paper quality and whether this plays a part.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    bookermt: I too would like to believe that the Epilogue section is a deliberate technique. While it is somewhat awkward in a narrative sense, it does emphasize the narrator’s “distance” from her father’s experience (which is so important to her) and the “formal” inability of acquiring enough reliable information to reach a conclusion. Using the transcript effectively establishes the official “wall” between her questions and the truth, in an entirely unemotional, non-judgmental manner.

    Trevor is planning on posting his review soon and, if he does not address the issue in the review (it does set up a spoiler, which is why I didn’t wonder about it then), I hope he will drop in here and offer his thoughts. Alison is on jury duty but if she comes across this discussion I hope she will chime in as well.

    I think you are on the right track with both your explanations about UK vs NA quality, although I would have some questions. The Canadian market is far smaller than the UK but volumes here are of a far higher standard. Yes, most of them are also being printed for the US market but even then the press run is pretty small. I have also wondered about the effect of paper quality (my newspaper background means I know just a little bit more about this aspect). My observation would be that most UK hardbacks use paper with a much coarser fibre than in NA — I’d also guess the clay content in NA pages is quite a bit higher, producing a smoother, tougher, but thinner page. Even “thick paper” novels here (which Skibsrud’s is) seem to have a “finer” quality to the page. The hardbacks that impress me the most (check out a Bond Street Books or Phyllis Bruce/Harper Collins volume for a truly wonderful modern book) certain have that firmness on the interior pages — and I have yet to see a NA hardback that is glued not stitched. Given the very, very high quality of the Folio Society volumes (matched by equally high prices), I’d say that economics has to be the issue — my fear is that North American publishers will move to shoddier versions.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Here is a link to a fascinating Globe and Mail story which explains why you may be waitiing for a while if you are looking for a copy of The Sentimentalists. It certainly explains why a number of visitors here (and myself) found it to be such an impressive physical volume.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I printed off some of your reviews yesterday and read them on the way in today Kevin. I’m happy to say they make good morning reading.

    I thought this was interesting. My main concern from the review (and this may be hard for you to address given I may read this and so would prefer to avoid spoilers) is that both you and bookermt were concerned that the ending might be a device to get out of an inadvertent corner rather than something more calculated.

    The issue that raised for me is that if you both had that concern, well firstly you might be right in that suspicion and secondly that even if not the fact you both thought it suggests if it is intentional it’s not as well executed as it could be.

    In a sense, it doesn’t really matter whether an author’s boxed themselves up and had to use a crowbar to get out if the crowbar convinces. Equally I wonder if it matters if it’s intentional if it raises suspicions it may not be.

    On paperbacks, I have noticed that UK paperbacks are generally of much higher quality than US mass market editions (which are terrible). I suspect it’s because almost nobody in the UK buys hardbacks, whereas in the US my impression is that among literary readers there’s still a preference for them. Still, interesting observations.

    On an aside, what were you thinking of when you said to Shelley that you thought there’s a ton of war fiction? Do you mean things like thrillers and action novels? I have to admit, although I can think of plenty of good literary fiction dealing with war over the years (The Naked and the Dead, Catch 22, Sword of Honour trilogy, A Farewell to Arms and that’s just off the top of my head) in terms of contemporary fiction I’m struggling a lot more. The upper middle class angst thing seems almost a default of creative writing classes (along with the upper middle class immigrant experience), while military fiction seems largely neglected. Am I simply missing something?

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That article’s fascinating. While his approach is interesting, it does mean here that a new writer is potentially missing out on an opportunity to break out to a much wider readership. If this doesn’t win the publicity will fade so the reader who’s there now may not be there in three weeks (or three months).

    It also means that international sales are basically not going to happen, which is a shame. I note though they do ebooks, so perhaps I’ll be able to get it on my kindle in due course.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Doing my best not to spoil, the issue with the concluding section is a major shift in narrative perspective — which I am now thinking was indeed deliberate. I think the author’s attention was to force readers to come to their own version of a screeching mental halt and have to recalibrate before proceeding. Certainly, that seems to be what it did for both bookermt and me.

    As for war books, my comments did refer to literary fiction as opposed to contemporary fiction about wars (although we in Canada, taking part in our first war since Korea, seem to be swamped by non-fiction accounts from “embedded” journalists — read non-paying guests of the Armed Forces — with no previous foreign corresponding experience). My hypothesis would be that war requires a generation of reflection before decent fiction can be produced. And it is also probably fair to say that I underrate the amount of “upper middle-class” angst fiction on the market simply because I don’t consider most of it worthy of attention at any level. So my comment was probably too flippant.

    Or maybe Canada is just catching up. In addition to this novel, Bergen (on the shortlist) and Urquhart (who should be) both have strong story lines resulting from military deaths in Afghanistan. Camilla Gibb (The Beauty of Humanity Movement) is about a half century of conflict in Hanoi; Alison Pick (Far to Go) is about Kindertransport. That’s five Canadian-authored war fiction books in less than two months that I have read.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    For me, the article does illustrate a number of things about Canadian publishing. The market is very small, as the initial press run illustrates. Yet, there are a lot of publishers — the elephant next door means that both federal and provincial governments have subisdy programs to help encourage “Canadian” cultural efforts. One effect of this is tha twe have more than our share of high-quality small printers, like Gaspereau Press (and Biblioasis, publishing of Light Lifting). I can assure you if you ever did find a copy of the first edition of The Sentimentalists (you may have to stop by for dinner on your next Canadian skiing holiday to look at mine), you would be very impressed. And it is not an unusual volume.

    I suspect that phenomenon also partially explains the hardback/paperback NA/UK quality issue that I raised. Every single Giller hardback that I read was stitched, not glued. (And every trade paperback looked brand new after I finished reading.) Yesterday I started the new John le Carre, a Penguin UK title (but this volume printed in the US). Glued, not stitched, and the front cover was askew by almost half an inch after only 50 pages of reading. And the dust cover was mis-folded by close to an inch so that half the spine cover is on the front (and almost an inch of the front cover is on the inside flap). Incredibly shoddy — which is why I appreciate people like Gaspereau so much. I suspect your hypothesis that there are more hardback fiction buyers in North America is probably correct.

    Finally, on the sales front, I don’t think Skibsrud will suffer that much. The Giller bump is pretty much restricted to the winner — and book club sales in the next year or two. Certainly she will lose some sales, but only part of the opportunity gained by being shortlisted. As for international sales, the money for Canadian authors is in selling international rights, not books (that’s why it is so hard — and expensive — for you to buy a Canadian book). Ironically, the scarcity issue may actually help Skibsrud here. Instead of selling a few dozen books, she might get a U.S. and U.K. publishing deal (she deserves it).

    All of which suggests you should probably buy the e-book. :-)

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    You’ve certainly caught my interest in it Kevin. I’d rather have one of these lovely physical copies, but it looks like you’re right and I’ll be looking at the e-book instead.

    Good job I got into them recently really…

    It’s nice to see high quality small publishers. Have you seen any Peirene Press novellas yet? Those are again a real pleasure to read on a physical level, quite apart from their excellent contents.

    For Skibsrud, regardless of any other benefits or drawbacks she clearly has a publisher who believes in her. That’s no small thing, many mid-list authors published by large houses would probably quite like to swap places.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I haven’t seen a physical copy of the Peirene books yet — of high quality small press novels I have seen, my comparison would be to Pushkin Press (without the distinctive format). Even then, I’d say Gaspereau uses even higher quality paper.

    And I certainly agree with your observation about mid-list authors in larger houses.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Quill and Quire reports today that Skibsrud has signed with Heinemann for a UK version — sorry I have no publication date yet.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hurrah! I’ll keep an eye out. Thanks Kevin.

  17. kimbofo Says:

    Amazon.co.uk is listing a publication date of 7 April 2011. You can pre-order it.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for that, Kim — UK readers may get a chance sooner than Canadian ones do to purchase this winner. :-)

    • AK Says:

      interesting……
      All the Giller hype surrounding this years winner and no ‘actual book’ to show for it…

      it’s Quite sad that UK and US readers will get a copy before us
      :(

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gaspereau Press and Douglas and McIntyre have reached a deal to quickly publish a 30,000 copy press run of The Sentimentalists which should be available within a week or so. An excellent decision, since the printer seems to produce very high quality volumes (indeed, they make the famous blue Birks boxes which are familiar to every Canadian). Full details are here:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/deal-struck-to-meet-surge-in-demand-for-giller-winning-book/article1799005/

    Alas, this is good news only for Canadians — I am not sure if US distribution is part of the package. And the rest of the world will have to await UK publication in April. The novel is worth the wait, I assure you.

  20. Anne-Nicole Pilkey Says:

    I’m happy with the way things have turned out for everyone involved-readers will have the option of purchasing a book from Gaspereau, or the cheaper edition from D&M, and the author will sell books and reach a wider audience. What could be better?

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Anne-Nicole: I suspect the five day controversy will actually end up enhancing sales — which is not a bad thing.

  22. rickp Says:

    I finally got my copy and read this. I did get the D&M version because I just couldn’t manage to get the Gaspereau edition.

    I very much agree with your comments on the murkiness of the style read and using extraneous detail. Unlike you, I never found the rhythm even when the themes became apparent.

    I did appreciate the poetic phrasing but ultimately didn’t find it to be a satisfying read.

    I thought it had an awkardness that made it really feel like a first novel. Just as I began to hang on to a coherent thread, she abruptly switched. The transitions were particularly awkward.

    So it wasn’t for me. I far preferred Light Lifting.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    rick: I can’t disagree with any of your observations (and I certainly prefer Light Lifting). I would be interested in what you thought about her switch to the transcript in the final part of the book. Another awkward transition? Or a suitable dramatic shift?

  24. rickp Says:

    Kevin,

    I was okay with the final switch as some clarifcation was required. It also drove home the theme about fallibility of memory.

    I think it was a little too late for me at that point.

  25. Marie Thompson Says:

    In the flush of interest generated by the Giller our book group chose The Sentimentalists for the current selection.

    I had the some of the same reaction to this book as I did to Fugitive Pieces and The English patient, although the Sentimentalists was not as satisfying or effective. It’s multi-layered and probably lends itself to a cinematic approach, although I often found it very difficult to visualize each scene.

    As with many of you, I had to reread and deconstruct many of the sentences in order to figure out what was going on. In some cases this process magnified the effect for me. But in most cases it just interrupted the flow.

    I think Johanna Skibsrud will write a better novel but I’m bewildered that the Giller jury chose this book for the award.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marie: I agree with your comparisons to both The English Patient and Fugitive Pieces (particularly the latter book). I also think both of them represented a broader canvas than The Sentimentalists (a deliberate choice on Skibsrud’s part, and a wise one). And I am not going to try to explain why the jury chose it — because I am sure I would be wrong.

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