Monday, March 7, 2011

Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists

Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists

Borrowed a copy of Johanna Skibsrud, The Sentimentalists, winner of this year's Giller Prize for fiction. Listening to her being interviewed piqued my desire to read the novel which is partly about the Vietnam war. Strange how, even though it was not one of Canada's wars, it has so affected our psyche, and attracted our artists. This story gets eventually to the Vietnam material but, like David Bergen's The Time in Between, focuses also on the damage done to young soldiers either when they commit acts which violate their own moral standards or when they learn that people lie, their coworkers lie, their superiors lie, and their government lies. Both these novels are about how the "sins" of the soldiers, the debilitating stress they bring home with them, are inflicted unto several generations, in patterns including lives of substance abuse, withdrawal, failed marriages, abandoned children.

At first, the poetic style of The Sentimentalists was somewhat off-putting to me; although I like poetry, I don't like it when poetic language gets in the way of story. (See my previous rants about Michael Ondaatje.) But The Sentimentalists is told through the POV of a poet daughter, so the language is organic to the character. Also, it was a bit difficult tugging my editor's toque off my head. When a sentence comes at me with the word "that" repeated at least three times, I scream. [Yes, but the four "lies" above are deliberate, for emphasis.] I learned to forgive, to ignore, to stress the positives--how the build up of incremental detail and symbolic objects and actions helps construct a story, and how the one absent character, as in real life, remains ultimately a haunting taunting mystery. This is an appealing story about a father-daughter relationship with a happy ending, at least happy in the sense that the narrator was able to ask some of the unspoken questions before it was too late.

Found a useful review in The Globe and Mail by Zoe Whittall.

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