Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2021

The Sentimentalists (2009), by Johanna Skibsrud

There was lively discussion at the blog of the late Kevin From Canada when The Sentimentalists was nominated for the 2010 Giller Prize, much of it focussing on the difficulty of Skribsud’s poetic prose and her way her layered text often demands re-reading.  Undaunted, I bought it when it went on to win the Giller,  and then kept hesitating over whether to read it or not.

Well, now I’ve read it, and I think the difficulty has not been overrated but the novel is worth it.

It’s a novel about the after-effects of service in the Vietnam War, narrated by a daughter who struggles to understand her parents and herself.  But in the course of caring for her father Napoleon as he slides into dementia, she learns that questing after the unknowable is a lesson in personal growth.

Initially, she believes that truth is never really buried:

…I find it difficult to believe that anything is ever buried in the way that I had once supposed.  I believe instead that everything remains.  At the very limit: the exact surface of things.  So that in the end it is not so much what has been subtracted from a life that really matters, but the distances instead, between the things which remain.  (p. 81)

In the aftermath of a soured relationship, the narrator recognises, however, the flaw in her quest to know:

Once my father said, women think that they can make sad things go away by knowing the reason that they happened.  This was in dismissal of a question that I asked him once about his experiences in the war.  He told me that in my curiosity I was just like my mother, and in the tone that he said it I knew at that moment it was the worst thing of all.

So I never mentioned the war to him again, until those many years later, when he told me himself.

I did believe that, I guess.  That I could make sad things go away.  Believed that if I knew what had happened to Henry (he had never spoken till that summer of his accident) that I could prevent an accident like that ever happening to myself, or to any of the people that I loved.

Believed, I suppose, that if there was a precise reason that I could get hold of to explain why Henry, and both of my parents ended up so very much alone, that I could prevent, for myself, an equivalent loneliness.  (p.83)

This is so true, I think, and yet I have not come across it expressed so clearly before.  People search for reasons and answers in the aftermath of all kinds of personal tragedies, in the belief that they will get ‘closure’.  Often we see them on TV expressing a wish that knowledge of the causes of a tragedy will prevent it from ever happening to someone else, so that the loved one has ‘not died in vain’.  It’s a very human reaction, to try to cushion oneself against grief and pain, and to want to protect others from it too.

The boat featured on the front cover of my edition is an important symbol of love in the novel.  Napoleon’s two daughters retrieve it from years of neglect in their grandmother’s barn when they move their father from America to Canada, to spend his last years with his friend Henry, whose son Owen did in the Vietnam War.  These daughters got it horribly wrong.  Because their father had built the boat, and talked about it so much, they assumed it was his.  Not understanding that it was a gift of love for their mother that endured despite their parents’ estrangement, they wanted to make up for having removed him from his home.

It’s funny, isn’t it? The way we always position ourselves at the centre of our own stories, and that even from some distance — even relegated to the third person, and from the present tense at least two times removed — we continue to imagine ourselves in that way.  It shouldn’t for example, have taken me so many years to realise that what I had for so long referred to as my father’s boat was indeed my father’s boat; far more so anyway than it ever had been — or would be — mine.

Or taken still more years to realise that it was far less his than it was my mother’s; built as it had been out of an extraordinary love for her, which had continued, throughout everything, and was why, after all those years, he had thought of the boat at all. (p.87)

Our parents’ relationship is so often a complete mystery to their children.

You can see from the excerpts that I’ve quoted (especially that discursive third one) that Kevin was right when he said in his review that…

While it is a relatively short book (218 pages of decent-sized type), its narrative style and structure make it a very challenging book to read. Skibsrud’s only previous published books were poetry and she has brought that poetic skill to the novel — but added to it both a complexity and uncertainty of story that requires (at least for me) frequent rereading at the sentence or paragraph level to gain some understanding of just what is going on, and even the result of that tends to be murky. This is a book that demands to be read in chunks of 40 pages or so and then put aside for some contemplation.

The last part of the novel is written in the style of court transcript, which is presumably deliberately ironic, in the sense that an Enquiry intended to uncover the truth about what happened in Vietnam — an Enquiry written in the flat, unemotional, logical dialogue of courtrooms everywhere — is just as ‘murky’ as the rest of the novel.

I’ve read some other winners of the Giller Prize:

  • 1995: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, read pre-blog
  • 1996: Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood, see my review
  • 2001: Clara Callan by Richard Wright, read pre-blog
  • 2002: The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke, read pre-blog
  • 2005: The Time in Between by David Bergen, see my review
  • 2007: Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, see my review

And I have some still on the TBR: Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyen; Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) by Madeleine Thien; and Anil’s Ghost (2000) by Michael Ondaatje.  I have some of the nominees too, thanks to the team who manage the Shadow Giller every year in Kevin’s memory.

Author: Johanna Skibsrud
Title: The Sentimentalists
Publisher: Windmill Books, 2012, first published 2009
ISBN: 9780099558361, pbk.,244 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from the Book Depository, $11.22


  1. Interesting reflective passages that you have highlighted here, and insights from the characters themselves.

    That searching for the ‘why’ is an interesting phenomenon, one that ultimately demands a journey within, but too often the answer is sought externally, and never quite provides the solace required if an answer is found there. Perhaps that why books like this exist, to show us, and the fact that it is demanding is like a metaphor for the process. Lovely review.


    • Yes… I sometimes think, when I see Americans demanding capital punishment after a murder, that they are thinking it will bring them some kind of closure, but I suspect that it makes no difference at all to the grief.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe you’re right on that Lisa. I don’t think punishment and revenge offer much in compensation.


    • Just now, there’s been that terrible case of Alice Sebold apologising to the man who was wrongly convicted of her rape and 16 years for it. It’s not so long ago that he would have hung for it and no apology would redeem her then.


  3. I often find the complexity worth it when poets become novelists. I’ve been looking at my own North American reading project for 2022. One of your TBR, Washington Black, is probably on the short list for one of the last two or three slots.


    • LOL If my past record is anything to go by, you’ll read it long before I do.


    • Washington Black is interesting, if somewhat far fetched, but I adored (and much preferred) Half Blood Blues, which won the Giller in 2011.


      • Thanks Kim, I’ve made a note. I sort of half thought the same when I read the summaries.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It shows us the value of these prizes that beyond the domestic market, readers get to hear about the exceptional fiction of countries outside the US and UK.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I really like the quotes you pulled – beautiful and precise. Somehow I missed this novel entirely, thank you for putting on my radar Lisa!


    • Just luck that I bought it all those years ago from following the Shadow Giller!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud […]


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