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The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

Me, typing out the blog post

Who:

  • people interested in the effects of the Vietnam War on soldiers
  • those who like reflective, inconclusive novels
  • someone interested in upcoming Canadian fiction

The Book:

There is a bit of hype around this book. Here it is: Joanna Skibsrud originally published this book through a small-scale publisher called Gaspereau Press, of Nova Scotia, a boutique-style publisher (which means they do the entire process of printing and binding on site). They released only 800 copies. The Sentimentalists, by Skidsrud, was nominated and then eventually won the Giller Prize for 2010. The week the shortlist was announced there were absolutely no copies to be found. In November, Gaspereau Press made a deal with a larger publisher in Vancouver and, lucky for me, the Hamilton Public Library received one of these copies. Here’s the story on the CBC news.

This is Skibsrud’s first novel, and what a way to start. There is definitely something to be said about scarcity; and something quaint about a little book with 800 copies becoming a coveted novel countrywide. I read a horrible review of the book on the Star.com, so here’s my attempt to do better.

The Plot:

Honey Haskell is a thirty year old woman who has come home after a scathing breakup with a boyfriend of six years. Home, however, is a haphazard phrase to Honey. Her mother lives in Orono, she actually grew up in Maine, but her father, Napoleon, lives in Casablanca, Ontario( not a real place). It is to Casablanca that she returns to stay with her father and his friend/roommate/fatherly figure Henry. Henry is the father of Napoleon’s war buddy, Owen.

Honey sees Henry as a grandfather figure after spending years of summers with him. But they are not related. She knows, although it’s unclear how, his story is connected to hers.

Honey learns some details of her Father’s war experience in Vietnam. Napoleon is dying of lung cancer, and time is short and his last days are hazy from alcohol and morphine.

Napoleon signed up for the war with very little intent. As Skibsrud reveals the blotchy memories of his time serving, they confuse the reader and are usually drug hazy, describing in great detail the size of the joint Napoleon and his comrades would smoke, or who rolled it. He doesn’t know where he was (maybe because of all the drugs and alcohol), or ever understand the purposes of their mission.

The book’s climax is a skewered event where a civilian was murdered during a Nam mission. One gets the impression that Owen was shot by a lieutenant in a reactionary situation where the lieutenant was in the wrong. Whatever really happened on that mission, it was enough to change Napoleon’s life.

When he returned he suddenly has a purpose: To build a boat. I believe the book is about this boat, more than anything else. The boat is a metaphor for some promise, or idea that he made to Owen while they killed time together buried in a foxhole. The boat had been started by Napoleon and he was so dedicated that it ruined his marriage, and pulled apart his family. It was supposed to be something beautiful, designed while stuck in the dirt and mud and rain. Everything in his depressed, alcoholic existence revolved around an unstated promise to make this boat, to do something good with the horror of Owen’s death.

Napoleon Haskell dies. But the novel still has a happy ending. Napoleon once quotes a poem to Henry and his daughter by Keith Douglas “Remember me when I’m dead and simplify me when I’m dead…”. This line is the key to the whole book. Later, Napoleon writes a poem about Honey and his granddaughter, and after he reads it to Honey she thinks:

“For the first time in a long time, then, it felt uncomplicated. It was just love, after all, that I felt for my father, and that wasn’t so hard” (page 166).

Death simplifies things, and we are able to see what is important. To Honey, it was no longer important that her Dad was a bad father, and a horrible alcoholic. She was able to simplify him, so that she could love him.

That’s it. That’s the plot of the book. Yikes, it seems very complex now that it is all out on paper like that.

Should you READ this?

This book is full of ironic and silly humour. Because Henry lives in a town called Casablanca, they constantly quote from the movie at ironic moments. It’s realistic and funny. The dialogue is lucid and fabulous.

But, I did NOT like this book when I finished it. I was mad that Skidsrub won the Giller for it. Her voice was difficult to follow. There was too much said. Too much over-reflection from Honey. By the time I had gotten to the end of the book I was mad; I wanted resolution.

A few hours later, the library copy of the book slipped behind my headboard and ended on the floor beneath my bed, unbeknownst to me. Three slightly irritating days passed; something was in the back of my mind every time I went to nurse my daughter. I needed to find the book. I wanted to reread some sections of the book. I found it and started flipping through chapters. Eventually, I decided to just reread the entire thing.

The book is intelligent. The more I thought of it, the more real it became. The more I pondered, the more I was able to see what Skibsrud was trying to say. Things don’t line up in life-like they do in “entertainment” storylines.

If you like reflective and realistic novels, this one may suit you. Skibsrud is, as one review said a “writer’s writer” which means, I think, that people who like literary novels or who can appreciate the craft of writing. But there is more to this book then just that. This one challenged my mind, and there were several sections, when Honey was philosophizing, that made me introspective. This book is about life, and it’s confusing, funny and messy. Life is often just plain sad, too.

 

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

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