Friday, December 10, 2010

book review: The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

The SentimentalistsThe backstory: The Sentimentalists, the first novel from Johanna Skibsrud, won the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which recognizes excellence in Canadian fiction.

The basics: In some ways, The Sentimentalists is a war novel. In other ways, it's a daughter's ode to her father. Ultimately, my inability to share basic plot details of a short novel is a testament to how much power Skibsrud packs into those 224 pages.

My thoughts:  I read The Sentimentalists in one sitting, which is remarkable enough alone for me, but this single sitting is made more remarkable because I started it on a Sunday night at 11 p.m. when I got home from an exhausting night waiting tables and had to be at work at 9 a.m. Monday morning. I lost sleep for this one, and it was so worth it.  Skibsrud's writing grabbed me from the earliest pages: 
"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" (p. 10). 
She paints such a human portrait of her father, and as he is revealed through anecdotes and tales, an amazing depth of character and time appears.
"So that even in those after-years, when my father had disappeared completely beyond the line of our horizon, it seemed as though, on fine days, I could see him still--a faint outline, a trace of himself--buoyed by the stubbornness of my memory, walking tentatively along the endless and otherwise uninhabited waters of my childhood." (p. 21)
Although I adored it, The Sentimentalists is not a novel everyone will enjoy. It's a reader's novel, filled with long, comma-driven sentences you will either love or loathe:
"...she passed on her own love of the water only through the stories that she would sometimes tell. Stories that made her seem, instead of closer, only further away--as though she surrendered herself, in the telling of them, to her own, separate, antidiluvian underworld, which was what (influenced, I suppose, by the buried town of Henry's backyard) we imagined all stories to be." (p. 18)
It's rare that I want to instantly reread a novel, but I would have gladly started again at page one if it weren't the middle of the night to rediscover passages like this one:
"I had thought in those years, I suppose, having learned the lesson from my mother well, that it was foolish to ask for too much out of life, afterwards only to live in the wake of that expectation, an irreducible disappointment. But what pain, I thought now, could be greater than to realize that even the practical reality for which you had assumed to settle upon, did not hold--that even that was illusory?" (p. 53)
The verdict: The Sentimentalists is a novel I will buy to re-read again and again. It's easily one of my favorite reads of the year, but it's not a book that will appeal to everyone. If you adore non-linear narratives, character-driven novels and gorgeous, comma-filled prose, then you will adore it.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5 stars)
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: Good news, U.S. readers--Norton will publish it May 2, 2011.
Source: the lovely folks at interlibrary loan were able to put a copy in my minds (and thank you to UNC-Chapel Hill for loaning it!)

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  1. I'm glad that you enjoyed this one so much! I haven't really felt a desire to read it, but you have made me rethink that.

  2. I read this also and found myself snickering at many of the self-conscious phrases. I truly hated it, and much prefer "the Trouble with Morris" which I am reading now, as a fellow candidate for the Giller. It's a much more complete book.
    And I like long, multi-layered sentences.

  3. Great review -- I think I'd love this book. It and the author are new to me -- but I'm adding to my TBR!

  4. I'm on the fence about whether or not this would be a novel from me, but it's good to see that now the book is being published! This is the first time I've seen the new cover of the Sentimentalists! :)

  5. Glad to hear that this was such a good read for you! From your description and the quotes you posted, I have a feeling I would like it too, and am going to have to add this one to my list. Wonderfully enthusiastic review!

  6. 5/5! Wow! I'm so pleased it was worth the wait.

    I'm not sure I'll enjoy those long sentences, but the fact you lost sleep for this one is a good sign. I'm going to give it a try when it makes it over here.

  7. Wow, you are really selling me on this one!

  8. Thanks for the review of this war novel, we've added it to the War Through the Generations Book reviews page.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!