Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Sentimentalists

Family can be a tricky business. Even in the closest families, you can never really be sure that you actually know your parents and siblings. I mean, you know the main things, but inevitably you'll discover things about them that shock or surprise you. Sometimes these are actual character traits, but more often they involve events from their pasts that they either felt weren't worth mentioning or were so hard to move past the first time, they have no desire to revisit them. More often than not, these discoveries happen after the person they concern has died – when you're going through their belongings, old photos, letters, and the like. In Johanna Skibsrud's Giller Prize winning novel The Sentimentalists, though, the previously hidden story of Napoleon Haskell's Vietnam War experience comes out before his death, and as quite a surprise to his daughter.

Napoleon was a soldier, and thus he and his family moved around the U.S. every year or so for all the years that his kids were young, at least until his wife left him. After he left the service and got through alcoholism, he found himself in Fargo, North Dakota, where he bought himself a trailer and went about setting it up to his liking. Skibsrud's writing is not fast-paced, and she takes her time describing Napoleon's home – his castle. There are a lot of character details in her description, and although Napoleon doesn't actually spend much of the novel in Fargo, knowing about his library and his fax machine are the sorts of ordinary details that can speak volumes about a person's priorities and character.

For all that, though, the book's narrator, Napoleon's daughter, is unnamed. We only know a bit about her – she talks about her childhood only in reference to Napoleon, but does tell us that she leaves the big city after discovering her boyfriend is cheating – but I can picture her down to the colour of her hair and eyes. Strangely, by not being overly specific about her characters' looks, Skibsrud makes them easier to picture, because their personalities are so well crafted, coming together as they do from a collection of stories, memories and description; rather than from an explanatory paragraph or introductory chapter.

Although the novel dips into the lives of Napoleon and his daughter in the outside world, its focus is on their time spent together in Casablanca, Ontario, at the lakeside home of Henry, the disabled father of a man Napoleon served with in Vietnam. Throughout all the time family moved from base to base, Henry's home had been their one constant – a place to spend summers and have coherent family memories. When his daughters started to worry about him living alone, they moved Napoleon across the border to join Henry full-time. It didn't take his daughter long to follow him, moving semi-permanently to Henry's after discovering her lover's infidelity.

The time the three of them – Henry, Napoleon, and Napoleon's daughter – spend together at the lake is the crux of the novel, which is many ways is about the quiet routines that we get pulled into without realizing it. The characters' routines are quite independent and the narrator's especially so. These are insular people who are drawn out of themselves when they are left to themselves, allowing trust to build up through actions rather than emphatic declarations. 

As their time together wears on, Napoleon – who is dying in installments – learns to trust his daughter and slowly his story comes out. It is a story that is both expected and surprising: he witnessed a brutal and systematic massacre of a Vietnam village by American troops and then testified at a tribunal. He had, apparently, never shared this information with his family, or really even spoken about the war, and the transcript of his testimony that follows the story is in many ways more striking than any one scene in the novel itself.

Overall though, The Sentimentalists succeeds because it feels like a real relationship, filled with its own confusing and passive-aggressive history, is unfolding in front of you. In real life, very little happens in big, splashy moments, and Skibsrud's ability to make day-to-day routines and silent conversations interesting and beautiful is what makes this such a great read. In telling the story of Napoleon, Skibsrud examines not only the legacy of war, but also the importance of language and the way that we talk about and describe it. The Sentimentalists may seem languid as you read it, but despite the carefully paced writing, it sure packs an emotional wallop. 

The Sentimentalists
by Johanna Skibsrud
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Gaspereau Press edition)


  1. I have yet to pick this one up, but I'm thinking I should after reading your review - thanks for sharing!

  2. Oh, this is a book definitely worth owning, especially if you can get your hands on a Gaspereau Press edition (which you might have to order from them). Not only is it a great story, but the book itself is beautiful – from dust jacket to font choice

  3. book was shit and was way too confusing


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