Feature

The Sentimentalists

The Sentimentalists
Johanna Skibsrud

Gaspereau Press
$$27.95
paper
216pp
978-1-554470785

Montreal writer Johanna Skibsrud’s last name couldn’t be more appropriate. It is Norwegian, she told me recently in a crowded café near her home in the Mile End, and means “ship’s rudder.”

It is appropriate because the central image of Skibsrud’s artful debut novel, The Sentimentalists, is a sailboat. Napoleon Haskell, father of the book’s female narrator, builds it himself in an inland town in Maine, beginning work in the year of the narrator’s birth and continuing for the next few years, regaling his wife and two daughters with promises of an ocean sail.

The promises turn out to be empty. The carpenter-father deserts his family without explanation or apology, leaving them in a half-finished house with a half-finished boat. It would be easy to cast such a man as a villain, but Skibsrud refuses to do so, delivering instead a character of convincing complexities and contradictions. This chain-smoking, alcoholic wreck of a man whose sole pleasure in his final years seems to be doing the daily crossword is so closely drawn, he comes across as sympathetic, as flawed people are in real life. He is a veteran of the Vietnam War, we learn, who has never spoken about his wartime experiences to his wife or children or, presumably, anyone else. He is also “a great reader and a great rememberer of things, though he never remembered anything in the right order, or entirely,” Skibsrud writes, “and always had just little bits of all the books and poems he’d ever read floating around in his mind.”

Besides conveying the mind of Napoleon Haskell, this passage introduces one of the book’s major themes – the slippery nature of memory.

When the novel opens, Napoleon Haskell is dying of lung cancer in the town of Casablanca, Ontario, on the shores of a man-made lake. At the bottom of this lake lie the remains of the original town, submerged decades ago when the lake was created. Napoleon lives there with Henry, the father of his old friend, Owen, who died fighting in Vietnam.

When her lover betrays her, the narrator leaves her apartment in Brooklyn and retreats to the Casablanca house, where she spent summers as a child. She comes to this supposedly simpler place, evocative of memories of a supposedly simpler time in her life, and immediately finds herself immersed in complicated stories from her family’s past. These stories seem to lurk everywhere, just below the surface of things, much like the submerged town of Casablanca.

The idea for the novel came to Skibsrud in the summer of 2003, right before she moved to Montreal to begin an MA in Creative Writing at Concordia University. Originally from Nova Scotia, she had spent the summer of 2003 on Flagstaff Lake in northern Maine, canoeing over a submerged town. That autumn, her father telephoned her and, for the first time, began to recount his wartime experiences.

“I am still not sure exactly why he told me his story when he did,” Skibsrud confides, “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.”

The setting for the novel was eventually switched from Maine to the “lost villages” of Southern Ontario, flooded when the Saint Lawrence Seaway was expanded in 1958. Casablanca is not actually one of the sunken Ontario villages. Skibsrud took the name from the 1942 movie, in which Humphrey Bogart plays an American war hero opposite Ingrid Bergman. In Skibsrud’s novel, Casablanca is the Haskell family’s favourite film. “It’s a crazy world,” Napoleon likes to say in a high-pitched Bergman imitation. “Anything can happen.”

Skibsrud herself is not so keen on the film, calling it “war propaganda.” It responded, she says, to a nostalgic yearning for moral certainty at a time when “it was becoming more and more evident how untenable it was to assert this and to convince the American public of it.”

Skibsrud’s title, The Sentimentalists, refers to our all-too-human need for a simpler imagining of the past. At one point in the novel, while rummaging in a kitchen drawer for a lost drug prescription, Napoleon discovers a poem written by the narrator as a teenager. The poem is about Henry. Napoleon reads it aloud and his daughter is appalled that she could have “imagined it all so simply; that Henry could have been for me, just, a man who fished. Who fixed the engines on boats. Who solved math problems with beatific patience in the evenings.”

Napoleon quotes a second poem relating to this issue. “Remember me when I am dead,” he recites on another occasion, “and simplify me when I’m dead.”
Simplification is the second major concern of the book. How can we take something as evanescent and vastly complex as a human life and attempt to capture it in words? This is the problem Skibsrud sets for her narrator, a young woman of poetic sensibility.

She also sets it for herself, the reader suspects, for she shares a number of traits with her narrator. Like the narrator, Skibsrud is a young woman of poetic sensibility and aspiration. Her first publication was a book of poems, Late Nights with Wild Cowboys (Gaspereau Press, 2008), which was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award. A second poetry collection is due out with the same publisher this spring. Also like the narrator, Skibsrud has a father (now deceased) who fought in Vietnam.

The book is rife with examples of the human need to simplify. Almost every character engages in an activity that provides clear-cut answers. Napoleon does crosswords. Henry solves math problems. And the narrator’s mother tries to tease out the causes and effects of her sorrow in a daily journal. For a while, the narrator also hunts for simpler answers to the mysteries of her life. In the book’s second half, however, the focus shifts away from her nostalgic musings to the father. The reader is given the father’s war stories straight up, without the daughter’s filter. In fact, the narrator is all but expunged from the book’s latter half. The stories centre around an incident at a place called Quang Tri – a real incident, it turns out, that resulted in the trial of an American officer for the shooting death of a Vietnamese woman.

Skibsrud’s own father testified at this trial, and she inserts part of the court transcript into her final pages. This artful mixing of fact and fiction is destabilizing, forcing readers to re-examine their notions of memory, storytelling, and ultimately of life itself.

“When,” the narrator muses, “in the winter following my father’s death, I read the transcript of his testimony – most of which I will now record below – my own sense of these things was only further confounded, and sometimes now I’m astonished by the audacity of any attempt, including my own, at understanding anything at all.”

The irony here is that this narrator and her creator seem to understand life a good deal better than most of us do. And happily, as a novelist, Skibsrud has a firm hand on the tiller. This poetic, probing work of fiction steers us closer to difficult human truths. mRb

Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal novelist and translator.

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