1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 20; The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibrud

The Sentimentalists was the winner of the 2010 Giller Prize, and being Canadian I do take an interest in the arts scene in Canada, for better or for worse. So in wondering what some of the more prominent contemporary authors were up to these days, I decided to pick up a copy of the book. In finishing it the novel, I must confess, I was more than a little disappointed.

The narrative tells the story of a woman who, after breaking up with her fiancé, has decided to spend some time with her father (apparently she has some sort of job/income that allows her to spend months on end hanging out in between homes). Her father (Napoleon) is living with an older man who is wheelchair bound, and the common connection between to the men is the elder’s son, with whom our unnamed narrator’s father served with in Vietnam. As her father, who is terminally ill, slips into a weak cognitive state before death, he speaks to her of his time in Vietnam, the first he has spoke about it since he came home from his tour of duty. The last fifty pages or so is when the narrative picks up, a university professor calls the government house where all three are staying, and to ask Napoleon about his remembrance of an event to which he had bared witness to. Between the dialogue shared between he and his daughter, and a manuscript of a military trial which was sent to Napoleon’s daughter by the university professor who is researching the incident, our unnamed narrator attempts to distinguish what exactly happen with no clear answer.


While the final fifty pages are reasonably enjoyable, parts of it, and the rest of the book, weigh down the potential the narrative had and ultimately the book serves as a resume for a writer who is still trying to find her voice.


One of the issues with the narrative are the breaks within the story telling which the author inserts. Many times, where a regular paragraph break seems appropriate, the author instead breaks the narrative off completely, for no apparent purpose, and starts back up after inserting a space where one wasn’t needed. There is also a question of the narrative position. It is written in the first person, but for some reason whenever the narrator jumps back to Napoleon’s time in Vietnam, the narrator stops referring to her father as her father and starts referring to him by his name. If the narrator was trying to tell a story and remove herself, then it would have made sense to remove herself completely, or acknowledge her presence throughout (as if it were a piece of gonzo journalism for example), but shift back from the two approaches seems to add an inconsistency to the narrative voice that removes the reader from the narrative. There are also a couple instances in which the narrator steps back and asks a question of the reader, which again creates and inconsistency as such a tactic makes it seem as if the narrator is speaking to somebody whom she knows, but the fact that this appears only a handful of times suggests that is not the case, otherwise she would speak directly to the reader throughout the narrative. The narrator even corrects herself in the narrative, which seems odd because if she were writing a journal or some such account, it seems as if she simply should have edited the mistake out of the narrative. Had this type of approach be present throughout the novel, it would have been instilling a character in the narrative voice, but because it happens only once, it just jumps out as a glaring inconsistency. There is also a question of tone and rhetoric. For most of the narrative the voice employs a gentle tone with a rhetoric lacking any use of colloquialisms and speaking objectively as a detached voice from whatever inner monologue might be occurring in Napoleon’s voice, but the narrative voice jumps into a more relaxed tone that employs vulgarities and colloquialisms that are in stark contrast to the voice during the rest of the narrative. I have no problem with vulgarity in literature, in fact I usually prefer it, but at the same time the narrative voice needs to be consistent, and all of these elements add up to a narrative voice that has no consistent identity and in turn pollutes a narrative that could have been otherwise engaging. There is also the fact that the author takes about 150 pages to get into the meat of the story and spend most of the preceding time mulling over the same material; my father was distant, my father keep things inside, the sadness was sad and the unhappiness was unhappy, ect…


Ultimately the author seems to be incapable of creating the tone effectively and efficiently and the Vietnam war being used as the backdrop of the narrative seems like an example of drama for drama’s sake, like some high school stoner who has been listening to The Doors too much, and watched Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now a few too many times and then decided to write a book about ’Nam. “Hey, bro, you gotta check it out man, I wrote a book about ’Nam”. Well, perhaps not that obnoxious, but still… The only saving grace is the approach of ‘talk therapy’ taking on a staring role over the subjective (things like physical evidence). This is, to me, a feminist approach to unfolding a narrative, much like the approach used in the television program “Cold Case”, in which mysteries and crimes are solved, not through the gathering of evidence, but through layered narratives that invoke talk therapy. Unfortunately, this approach has not been executed or employed well in this novel.

Up next: The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford

Word I thought I’d look up:

Archipelago: Islands, or sea with islands.


Antediluvian: Outdated, or from a time before the Flood.

Thrombotic: The forming of blood clots.


Palpably: Intense or obvious.


Pithecoid: Resembling or relating to apes.


Tureen: a deep serving bowl.


Estuary: The section of a river that meets the see.


Emulsion: Suspension of one liquid within another liquid.


Incredulous: Unwilling to believe.


Inchoate: Just beginning to develop.


Gesticulation: To make gestures.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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