Memories are both a blessing and a curse. They have the emotional power to take us back to our greatest experiences but they also insidiously unreliable, constantly lying to us about our own past. Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel, The Sentimentalists, plays on this contradictions. Her Giller Prize winning novel, a near-autographical take on her own father, deals with the tantalizing power of memory as well as its inability to bring us closure.
After a breakdown in her own life, the protagonist returns to Government House in Ontario to recover and to reconcile with her long-absent and dying father Napoleon. The story alternates between the present and past. The present is told by the protagonist and directly deals with her own feelings and memories of her father while the past is told to her by her father. These stories deal with his earlier life and later his experiences in Vietnam.
It is in reading these passions that you begin to understand while Skibsrud’s first effort was universally praised. Her prose is outstanding. It’s poetic and flows naturally without any sign of artificial writing. The prose belies her past work in poetry as her sentences and paragraphs are beautifully constructed. Her style is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje whose text reads more like poetry than prose fiction.
However, outside of the beautifully written text, there isn’t really much else to recommend. The story of a person trying to piece together the past of their father has been done many times before with far more effectiveness. Recounting horrifying experiences in war has been done countless times before as well. Skibsrud’s recounts of Vietnam warfare and the atrocities (seemingly) committed by Napoleon’s troop are generic, countlessly replayed in other books, TV shows and movies. On this, Skibscrud may be understandable limited by the experiences of her father and the written record on which the events in Vietnam are based.
However, these same events could have been far more compelling with a stronger narrative structure. While the hook of the novel is the daughter’s search to understand what happened to her father in order to understand her own life, this conflict was not presented in a way that hooked me to the story. For the most part I meandered through the story, finding little to drive me towards the end. What this story needed was a MacGuffin, something that becomes the focal point of the protagonist’s search and that when found, provides a measure of illumination and understanding to the reader. The unfinished boat at the beginning of the story holds promise in this regard but it is not truly developed. The boat feels more like an appendage than an essential part of the protagonists history, a real missed opportunity.
But perhaps that is not Skibsrud’s point. Instead of providing quick and satisfying conclusions to the reader, she is more interested in showing in how memories, while tantalizing, are never able to provide the answers for which we seek. They are shadows of truth and The Sentimentalists raises these questions effectively at the inconclusive end. While the story itself is rather uncompelling, Skibsrud’s evocation of memory strikes very close to truth. It is for perhaps for this reason that the literary community awarded her the distinguished Giller Prize. Literary juries prize originality above all else and on this score, Skibsrud stands alone by integrating memory into all aspects of her story, from structure to prose, from the beginning to the end. Perhaps the closest corollary that I can think of is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. But in Ishiguro’s work, the story leads to an emotionally devastating finale. In Skibsrud’s debut, I felt nothing. The elements are there, but they are just out of reach.
Memories are emotions unresolved and while Skibsrud’s debut effort is not able to tell a effective story, she is to be commended for capturing its essence. While I cannot recommend The Sentimentalists to others for its generic and uncompelling storyline, I recognize that she effectively captures the power and fallacy of memory throughout all aspects of her novel. She has significant writing skills. When she combines these literary skills with a more compelling story, she may very well create the next Great Canadian Novel.