The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud
W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011
Borrowed from my library. Winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
First released by Gaspereau Press, a small publishing house in Nova Scotia, this novel tells the story of a daughter following the trail of her father’s past and trying to piece together the puzzle of her family and of the relationship formed between her Dad, Napoleon Haskell, and his friend Henry Carey.
The sentimentalists starts with the narrator and her sister moving their Dad from Fargo, North Dakota to Henry’s house, a house that sits on the shores of a lake in Ontario, Canada. This is no ordinary lake. It was created years ago, by a dam built to create a reservoir that flooded whole towns and covered the house and land that Henry, and Henry’s son Owen, had grown up in.
Skibsrud is a poet and the emotional depth of this small novel comes in images created by her beautiful way with language. The lake holds memories, an unfinished boat holds the desolation of Napoleon’s marriage. Eventually, Napoleon is dying, we learn some of his history and the basis for the connection between him and Henry.
There was something in his voice, though – an apology for something too big for him, and which was perhaps not even intended for me – and still, he regarded me as he spoke. Still, it was as though he were in fact reaching out. As though he were in fact touching me. But for once he did not, and after some time passed into which we again said nothing, I started the motor on the boat and drove off. From page 126.
There is sadness in the novel, also a sense of resolution and deep love. I wondered how connected it’s roots are to Johanna Skibrud’s relationship with her father. Turns out part of it is based on her Father’s testimony at a hearing for an Article 32 investigation of an incident at Quang Tri, South Vietnam, in October 1967.
It seems we are entering a time to revisit the war in Southeast Asia through fiction. I have read two novels about Vietnam and one about Cambodia in the last two months. Maybe it’s time to read The Things They Carried again.