The story that surrounds Johanna Skibsrud’s first novel is captivating. The Sentimentalists, published by Canada’s tiny Gaspereau Press in an initial print run of 800, was the surprise winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize. (The Giller, for anyone who doesn’t obsessively follow the Canadian literary scene, is one of the two or three most prestigious national literary prizes to be won in Canada.) It was a year of small-press triumphs on both sides of the border: Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co) took the National Book Award, while Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press) won the Pulitzer.
Skibsrud’s win made for a wonderful story—a book by a very small press, with a very small print run, beating out contenders from some of the largest publishers on earth. I was delighted, as I had been with the Gordon and Harding wins, to see a book from a small press getting such attention. And yet hype, of course, is a double-edged sword. Too much of it puts an unfair weight on any novel, particularly a quiet and poetically-written debut.
Napoleon Haskell—shaky father, inconstant husband, and Vietnam vet—has been living for some years in a frankenhouse of pieced-together trailers in Fargo. He never meant to settle here, but Fargo was where he was pulled over for a DUI after he abandoned his family. He’s sick and exhausted, slightly unbalanced from the lingering effects of the war, growing old alone in a town where he never meant to stay in the first place. His daughters, the narrator and her older sister, step in and transport him to the tiny Ontario town of Casablanca where his dear friend Henry lives.
Twelve houses in the town were flooded decades earlier when a dam was built. The drowned houses form a ghost village under the water, a few hundred yards from Henry’s kitchen door. Henry, at this point, is more family than friend; Napoleon was close friends with Henry’s son, Owen, who died in Vietnam, and he found Henry after an extended search in the years after the war. Napoleon and his daughters summered in Casablanca for years, starting when the narrator was a small child.
The narrator is oddly ghostlike. She’s an American and she’s Napoleon’s daughter, but aside from that we learn very little about her. We are given glimpses of her childhood memories and we are privy to her sadness—she arrives home one day to find the man she’d been planning on marrying having sex with another woman on the laundry pile; devastated by the infidelity, she uproots her life in New York and travels to Casablanca to stay with her father and Henry—but we never learn her occupation, or the passions and interests of her adult life, or how she manages to support herself while living illegally in Canada, or even her name. She exists to narrate. The story is Napoleon’s.
The daughter’s insubstantiality is a curious choice, because Skibsrud has formidable skills in character development. In Napoleon, Skibsrud convincingly portrays a complex and difficult man. He is monstrously selfish—the kind of person who can’t remember to crack the car window when he lights a cigarette, no matter how many times his daughters beg him over the course of the interminable car ride from Fargo to Ontario—but capable of tenderness; mean on occasion, but often kind. Much of the book is concerned with the narrator’s relationship with her father, but here Skibsrud has given herself a considerable challenge: it’s difficult to fully explore the nuances of a relationship when only one character is fully conveyed. Still, even if we can’t know the narrator very well, her longing to understand what made her father into the man he became is moving. She has known all her life that her father was forever altered by his experience in the Vietnam War, but he’s never spoken of it until now, in his last days in Henry’s house, when she begins to question him about the past.
The Sentimentalists is concerned with themes of submergence—a drowned town, a buried past—and the theme is echoed in the structure of the book. Most of the book is given over to a slow unfolding and explication of the narrator’s childhood and her current life in Casablanca, before the faster-paced sections dealing with Napoleon’s Vietnam experience and the ensuing inquiry begin. Skibsrud is a careful, unhurried writer, and her background in poetry shows. The Sentimentalists contains a great deal of text about the inner lives of characters, exquisitely written but so intricate that I found it necessary to go back and reread whole paragraphs on occasion, trying to follow the descriptions of the various shapes of the empty spaces within her characters’ respective souls, descriptions of that metaphorical room, this metaphorical windowsill, that metaphorical bird.
It’s a condition common among novels written by poets. Plot momentum inevitably suffers, but whether you count this as a flaw depends entirely on your tolerance for digressive poetics. Skibsrud’s dips into the inner lives of her characters are often lovely. The Sentimentalists contains moments of pure beauty. And yet it’s extraordinarily difficult to maintain tension in a novel that’s allowed to move so slowly, and with so many digressions, and it’s difficult not to wonder what this book might have been if Skibsrud’s obvious talent had been subjected to a stronger editorial hand.