Last night, the Giller prize, the wealthiest and some say the most prestigious literary prize in Canada, was awarded to The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud, who grew up in Nova Scotia although she now lives in Montreal. The Sentimentalists was published right here in Kings County by Gaspereau Press, a small company dedicated to quality literary printing and publishing. Their books are works of visual art to hold and touch as well as to read.
The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud. Gaspereau Press, 2009, 27.95
Reading a book in preparation for reviewing it can sometimes be compared to making bread. Once the sponge has been kneaded, the bread is left to “rest” for a period of time before it is completed. When I finished reading The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud’s first novel, I initially was at a loss regarding how to review it, so left it alone for over a week before revisiting it.
The novel’s premise seems straightforward. The narrator’s father, a US Army veteran with the somewhat incongruous name of Napoleon, is declining in health, which coincides with an implosion in her own life. She moves him from his “palace,” a trailer in Fargo, North Dakota, to share a house in a lakeside town with Henry, the son of Napoleon’s friend Owen, who was killed in action during the chaos that was the Vietnam War.
The town, Casablanca, is a replacement for a town that was flooded to make way for a dam and that still remains beneath the lake, deeply submerged and viewed only through memory. In much the same way, personalities, emotions and stories of the main characters are only seen murkily, as if peered at through waters churned up by currents or storms. Gradually we see more of the characters and discover the haunting story that so affected Napoleon and coloured his whole life.
Skibsrud has said in interviews that the story evolved from conversations with her father, a Vietnam veteran, a year or so after the invasion of Iraq began following the events of September 11, 2001. During that earlier war, her father, then a young soldier, had witnessed the murder of a civilian woman by an army officer. He was so outraged by this event that he spoke out to his superiors, which resulted in an inquiry being held. Although the novel is inspired by this facet of Skibsrud’s family history, she stresses it is a work of fiction.
“‘Remember me when I am dead, and simplify me when I’m dead,’” Napoleon says, quoting a well-known verse by the British soldier-poet Keith Douglas, who was killed in the Normandy invasion of June 1944. Napoleon and his daughter agree that these are the words of “a rank sentimentalist” but also, the narrator writes, “like maybe everything was not such a big mystery after all.”
Before writing The Sentimentalists, Skibsrud authored of a book of poetry, Late Nights with Wild Cowboys, and her skill with word pictures shows nicely in some of the passages. However, at times the novel suffers from a lack of firmer editing. Long, meandering sentences might work well in presenting ephemeral thoughts and ideas in poetry. In this novel they’re used to such an extent that too often they serve to distract and even annoy the reader.
Gaspereau Press is well known for publishing books using quality paper and distinctive covers, creating books that are as much a pleasure to hold, as they are to read. It always puzzles me, however, that this press and others will often include long screeds at the end of a book about the typeface in which the book is set, yet say little or nothing about the artwork used in creating the cover. I particularly like the cover of The Sentimentalists, with its khaki-green illustration of a soldier sliding sideways off into the jacket flap and echoing on the back, much as the events of Napoleon’s life “have been…somewhat sideways to himself.”
As a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, The Sentimentalists succeeds nicely in presenting a journey of growth and possible enlightenment in its narrator character. Where it falters a little, however, is in taking too twisted a road on the voyage in which to tell its tale. That criticism aside, it will be interesting to see what direction Skibsrud’s work takes in the future.
Small publishers/printers like Gaspereau are faced with a real dilemma when a book is nominated for awards like the Giller. Do they print a huge number of copies to go out to bookstores across the country and then have a significant portion returned to them once the glare of the publicity is off them? Or do they hold back on printing more copies until they see what will happen with the award?