The Sentimentalists, 2010 Giller Prize winner, has seems to have gotten more press (in Canada, at least) for it’s curious publication complications rather than the story itself. The book was first published by a tiny artisan publishing company that produces books by hand. When it surprisingly won the Giller Prize, it was impossible for Gaspereau Press to produce enough copies to meet demand, but the company initially refused to let a bigger company print the novel, much to the apparent frustration of the author, the booksellers and the reading public. Eventually, Douglas & McIntyre was able to produce a big print run, but it was a fascinating publishing problem that actually caught the eye of mass media, which seems so rare.
Skibsrud is a poet, and this is her first novel. It deals with a daughter fleeing from her life and spending time with her father as he nears the end of his life. He is haunted by his experiences in the Vietnam War, but has never revealed the details of that part of his life with his family or friends. He begins to reveal parts of that history to his daughter, particularly the events surrounding the death of his friend Owen, with whose father the narrator and her father have made a home.
Much of the book seems to focus more on imagery, pacing, and phrasing rather than character. I found the first part of the book slow, with Cormac McCarthy-like sentences that take up entire paragraphs. At one point, the unnamed narrator describes leaving her body while standing on a street corner, and I had to reread the passage a few times to decide if she had died and was having some type of out of body experience, or just some type of mental break. However, once the story focuses on her father and his story, the focus tightens and the story becomes more compelling. I suspect the change in pacing is deliberate, but it serves to make the book feel rather uneven to me. When the book first won the Giller, I recall one reviewer calling the book “overwritten,” which might be an apt description.
Some of the imagery in the book is lovely, and there are some really nice moments scattered throughout dealing with the relationship of a young woman coming to peace with her relationship with her father and his impending death. Near the end of the book, when the father phones his daughter to read her a poem he is trying to write, she realizes that “…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.” Small sequences like that feel true, and less like the author is trying too hard to write a great novel. The descriptions of his war experiences were also well realized, likely because Skibsrud based them on her own father’s real life experiences.
This book is rather short, running 218 pages in the Douglas & McIntyre edition, and the second half of the book is a more enjoyable read than the first. However, I enjoyed it overall and think that Skibsrud is a promising novelist.