Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists

The SentimentalistsThe Sentimentalists by Johanna Shively Skibsrud

This review will be brief, I think.

I can’t think of any way to discuss the book without revealing the “ending”, so I’m not even going to try. I also didn’t enjoy the book at all. There was a minute there where I thought I would. It didn’t pan out. I don’t think I’m going to be very nice about it.

I read The Sentimentalists because my darling Mother-in-Law essentially asked me to.  I don’t remember the exact words, but she did say “I’d be interested in getting a male perspective” or some other bullshit like that.

In other words:  It’s all her fault.

As near as I can tell, The Sentimentalists is the story of Napoleon Haskell, told through the eyes of his daughter Honey. For the first 80 or so pages… nothing happens. There’s a bunch of wordy, yet vague, descriptions of how Honey’s family was never really close, and that her father was a drunk vet, full of empty promises. One of these promises was to finish a boat. Spoiler: He doesn’t finish the fucking boat. Instead he disappoints his family, runs off to live in an unfinished shack, until one day his daughters scoot him across the border to live with the father of his buddy who died in the war.

Yes. I’m oversimplifying things. I’m doing this because I wasn’t fucking interested.

I was interested at one point. When Napoleon finally opens up to his daughter about the war, the book goes from long drawn out descriptions of minutia to becoming an interesting tale of a random soldier in the Vietnam War. Napoleon goes on to tell a tale, that is sad, engaging and intriguing. He’s not clear on the details, because he’s clearly done everything he can to forget them. This happens about page 150 of  217, and actually made me excited to finish that final quarter.

In the end, I didn’t enjoy this book. That final quarter? It doesn’t fill in any details. Instead, it includes a transcript from an inquiry on the incident Napoleon witnesses. That transcript doesn’t corroborate with what Napoleon tells his daughter at all. I think this was supposed to show us that, despite what his platoon thought, Napoleon had tried not to blatantly accuse his fellow soldiers of anything.

Instead, what it shows us is that the author is trying to leave us with an open to interpretation ending. Maybe we’re supposed to come away feeling that we’ll never really know the truth of anything in our parent’s lives? Maybe we’re supposed to think that we can’t ever really learn from them how to avoid making mistakes? I don’t know. Whatever she was trying to do, it didn’t give two shits.

The book ends letting us know that someone did eventually finish building that goddamn boat and now it’s on it’s way up the Northumberland Strait. Yippie!  It’s one of the things these characters are sentimental about. I think it’s one of those take-pleasure-in-small-consolations moments. Whatever. By the end, when I realized that I wasn’t ever going to get any kind of resolution about what happened to Napoleon or his friend, I really, really, really didn’t care about any of these characters.

This book won “The Giller Prize” for something or other.  It’s a Canadian literature award of some type.  If this is the best we can do, I think we should all throw our fucking pens in the Bay of Fundy and give the fuck up.

This wasn’t very brief, was it?  Oh well.  I guess I lied.  You’ll get over it.


One comment on “Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists

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