Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Poet's Touch: Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists

Memories. They can provide refuge or anguish. But they can also protect or betray their owners. Memories can spark nostalgic laughter between friends, or can be so sad they make one want hide carefully away from it all. Johanna Skibsrud’s Scotiabank Gillar Prize winning novel The Sentimentalists (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), beautifully examines the profound affect memories can have not only an individual, but all those close to him.

The novel is guided by an unnamed narrator who, following a personal crisis, returns to the stay with her father, Napoleon Haskell, a Vietnam War veteran living in the fictional town of Casablanca, Ontario. Napoleon shares a house owned by Henry, the father of Owen, a fellow soldier who served beside Napoleon, who was mysteriously killed on an evening in October 1967. The town itself serves as a backdrop for ghosts, sitting by the shores of a man-made lake, and what lies beneath is the former town, where houses rest like sunken ships. The story moves between the present and the past, between Fargo, ND, the fictional Casablanca, ON, and the battlefield. The first half of the novel is a series of reflections presented by Napoleon's daughter. The narrator reminiscences over her childhood, her sister Helen, their mother and their travels between Fargo and Casablanca. There are bittersweet motifs of a loving, but distracted father; once a simple man who was complicated by the horrors of war. But those memories create a tribute of misunderstandings and misgivings that eventually lead to the demise of his relationships with others and himself.

As Napoleon’s health begins to wane, the novel introduces themes that accompany the caring for an ailing parent. It deals with the difficult and painful experience of watching as someone, whom was once a pillar of strength, slowly wilts away. Skibsrud's book is about our desire to savour those final moments together, both simplifying and immortalizing them for future recollections. Finally, Skibsrud also develops a need in her story to unravel those mysteries. By salvaging the memories of the previous generation, The Sentimentalists is an attempt to help understand the current ones. The mystery of Owen’s death and Napoleon’s troubles are examined through flashbacks of the battle field. The quest for truth is challenged later when Napoleon’s daughter obtains the transcripts of her father’s statements during a trial. Conflicts between his recollections on paper and comments made to her arise leaving the reader to wonder where the truth lies. This raises new questions about the impact of memory on truth. Do events change based on the way one remembers them?  What happens to the truth? Can there be multiple truths, actual truths and remembered truths, to accommodate memory?

The Sentimentalists has its own back-story. It lived in otherwise obscurity until it was shortlisted for, and subsequently awarded, the 2010 Scotiabank Gillar Prize. Its humble origins rest with Kentville, Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press, which gave it an initial print run of 800. Its author, Skibsrud, is the youngest to be short-listed and subsequently win the Scotiabank Gillar Prize. While the novel is a first, Skibsrud has the classical training to compose a masterpiece. She holds a Masters in creative writing from Concordia University and is currently pursuing a PhD at the Université de Montréal. In addition to The Sentimentalists, Skibsrud published two collections of poetry, Late Nights with Wild Cowboys (Gaspereau Press, 2008) and I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being (Gaspereau Press, 2010).

The poet’s touch is evident throughout The Sentimentalists. Skibsrud approaches the English language more like an art form, and less like a science. Her carefully composed passages use a sort of philosophical prose to understanding her topics of memory. While there is less attention to plot and character development, Skibsrud makes up for it with the gift of queries that keep the reader in a passionate cycle of reading, stopping, thinking, and re-reading. For example, simply consider her contemplating passages about family: “To think that despite our best intention we may, in the end- and necessarily – leave the people that we love quite extraordinarily alone”; about understanding, “Women think that they can make sad things go away by knowing the reason they happened […]”; and, of course, about memory: “[…] I find it difficult to believe that anything is ever buried the way that I had once supposed. I believe instead that everything remains”. 

Author Johanna Skibsrud
Staunch followers of George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, may be tested by some of her elaborate passages. The Sentimentalists is an antonym to “plain English,” as the author not only capitalizes on metaphors and similes but always uses a long word, when a short one will do. If this makes one cringe, you may want to steer clear of this novel and stick to more plain-language Malcolm Gladwell-like authors. However, fans of the poet-turned-author, Anne Michaels and Leonard Cohen to name two, will take to the novel’s quintessential CanLit qualities. There are ample melancholic introspective passages, such as the loaded philosophy on, one of our favourite topics, heartache: “To understand the grief of another, instead of your own. Because of the way that we are able, then, to hold it at some distance from ourselves and have it returned to us.” There is also presence of a reflective and symbolic landscape, a novel set on a lake of ghosts. In the end, the reader is challenged to determine, for Napoleon and his daughter, and for the reader himself, the true relationship between memory and truth. Skibsrud suggests that the best we can do is: “answer the questions that pose themselves to us and describe, if only to ourselves, the actions we have or would have like to have taken, and will take now, and do take, over and over again, in the quiet parts of our mind.” The Sentimentalists, with its poetic elegance, eloquently describes the never-ending struggle to remember, to simplify and to understand. 

 -- Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.  

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