Friday, July 22, 2011

The Sentimentalists

"It made me sad then, and still does, to think of it. And also not a little afraid. To think that despite our best intentions we may, in the end - and necessarily - leave the people that we leave quite extraordinarily alone."

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Originally published by Gaspereau Press Limited; Re-published by Douglas & McIntyre, 2010) 218 pages

I know a number of people who gave up on this book and were mystified by its winning the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her win was a bit of shock for many people who follow the Gillers. The writer is relatively unknown; the original publisher is a small Nova Scotia press (initially only 800 copies were produced). That, of course, doesn't disqualify it as being a good book by any means. But the reaction to the book has been very curious, almost hostile.

The book is laden with metaphorical meaning that might appear heavy-handed; the pace might be perceived as slow. Skibsrud's voice is poetic but sometimes ponderous, producing long sentences with elaborate, meandering subordinate clauses. But some passages are beautifully written and there is a quiet intensity which appeals to my more melancholy side.

The unnamed female narrator chronicles the life of her father Napoleon Haskell, his loneliness, alcoholism and illness during the last years of his life as he entrenches himself in the home of his friend Henry Carey. After the Vietnam war, Napoleon befriended Henry, the father of a fallen Vietnam buddy named Owen Carey, and began taking his wife and two little girls to Casablanca, ON every summer to visit.

As Napoleon's health declines, his two daughters eventually move him from his trailer in Fargo, N.D. to the house owned by Henry ("the government house") which was paid for by the government after his farmhouse was flooded by an engineering project. The "lake" that surrounds them deliberately submerged the fictitious town of Casablanca, Ontario by which they reside. The "new" town of Casablanca is little more than a few houses and an intersection, representing a shadow of the town flooded in 1959.

The lake serves as an obvious metaphor for Napoleon's submerged memories surrounding the war and Owen's death of which Napoleon never speaks. He deflects questions about the war with a sad observation which his daughter repeats: “Once my father said, women think that they can make sad things go away by knowing the reason that they happened."

The names of characters and places chosen by Skibsrud are curious and significant. Napoleon suggests a a small but powerful man who is, in the end, defeated and exiled as is our main male character. Napoleonseems defeated by the course of his life; he faces a slow and quiet death by lung cancer in Casablanca. Naming the small town Casablanca suggests a place of conflict and intrigue, with mistaken identities and villains lurking in the background as in the 1940s film.

This Napoleon is charismatic and funny. He does a wicked impression of Bogart for his children, trades stocks (ineptly it appears) on-line and finishes off the last part of his life drinking too much, arguing with Henry over political issues and entertaining his recently separated daughter (the narrator of this tale).

After the narrator discovers her partner in flagrante delicto on freshly laundered clothes on their conjugal bed ("with a woman who happened to look very much like me"), she flees Brooklyn for Casablanca and hides out with her father and Henry. The soiled laundry on the bed becomes an apt symbol of the defiled relationship.

Personally, I find that the last third of the book is the most affecting. The scenes of the past set in Vietnam are tersely worded and effectively rendered. They represent a dramatic shift in the language and pace used in the first two thirds of the book. The language is realistic; Napoleon's fear is palpable as is the anxiety of the rest of the troops. Napoleon witnesses a My-Lai type of incident about which he speaks to the chaplain of the unit. A trial ensues and Napoleon is effectively ostracized for his confession.

As the book progresses and we learn more of Napoleon's past, he declines and slips into a sort of dementia which affects his memory. But it is not until after his death that the narrator learns more of Napoleon's suffering during the war. The book ends with 30-page trial transcript, based on the events that transpired in Vietnam - a different approach from the rest of the novel but it felt like a bit of cop-out, a shorthand for the events of the past. And we are, really, no nearer to finding out the truth of Owen's death than we were at the beginning which was frustrating to me as a reader.

The story, while fictitious, has roots in Skibsrud's own family history as she explains here:
“The real beginning of this story was a summer that I spent working on Flagstaff lake, a lake that covers four now submerged townships in northern Maine, and served as the inspiration for the lake and the buried town in my book. That fall, with the beginnings of a story in my head, my father began to speak for the first time about his experiences in the Vietnam War. I am still not sure exactly why he told me his story when he did, but I think it had to do – it was 2003 then – with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which had been for some time stirring in him a deep anger toward a government willing to repeat the mistakes of the past at the expense of innocent people; soldiers as well as civilians.

My mother thinks that my father told me his stories because he knew that I would do something with them – what I did write, though, was not my father’s story, but my own. And it is not a true story. At its root, though, there are two true things. One is my father’s testimony following Operation Liberty II in 1967, in which he spoke out against the murder of a civilian woman by the Captain of his squad. The other is the feeling I got floating over the buried towns of Flagstaff Lake: a feeling of the way that everything exists in layers, that nothing disappears; it just gets hidden sometimes.” Gaspereau Press Ltd.
The Sentimentalists is sometimes lovely, poignant, melancholy. I just wish an editor with a firm hand had gotten hold of Skibsrud and was able to curb her more excessive linguistic meanderings.

1 comment:

Christine said...

I'm afraid to read it. I have a hard time with linguistic meanderings. Tight, spare prose makes me happy; I realize that limits my enjoyment.