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.