The delicate balance between disquisition and narrative spontaneity has long been a source of lively debate in literary circles. The most famous argument on this theme might be Henry James’ critique of George Eliot’s writing style. James, no slouch when it came to philosophical musings in his own work, found Eliot’s brilliant novels weighted down by too much reflection and not enough action.
Perhaps there is some consolation for Johanna Skibsrud in being in good company. She might also feel proud of her book’s beauty as a physical object. Gaspereau Press produces lovely hand-sewn paperbacks printed on their own printing press, using wonderful heavy gauge textured paper. Unfortunately that’s as far as the consolation goes, because her first novel (following a successful collection of poetry), suffers from an extreme case of overstrain in the disquisition department. There are poignant images scattered throughout the two hundred and sixteen pages of this novel, birds with hearts nailed to their chests and ghostly memories entangled among the relics of a submerged town. But that is not enough to sustain the reader, who is left to discern the meaning behind a stream of endless sentences full of abstract musings on the absence of emotion and the ephemeral quality of this or that reality.
Ironically, Skibsrud seems to have insight into the problem of generalizations within the contextual intimacy of a novel; her protagonist states, “[it] is only from a distance that abstractions are, after all, desirable, or even possible.”
The heart of The Sentimentalists is not Skibsrud’s nameless narrator’s esoteric contemplation of the meaning of life and love. Nor is it the story of her father Napoleon’s unfinished boat The Petrel that drifts unpredictably in and out of the novel, providing opportunities to use lots of marine imagery. The heart of this novel, the content that has the potential to draw to reader into its savage, bloody, and ultimately tragic core, is the story of Napoleon, what happened to him during his time serving as a soldier for the Americans during the Vietnam War, and how that experience shaped his future self.
After sixty-eight pages of heavy going, the character Henry takes centre stage. He repeats many of the details we already know, but manages at least to displace the first person narrator and engage the reader by describing the multi-generational turmoil leading up to the flooding of a small Ontario town by the local power company. Here too we learn more about Owen, Henry’s dead son and a wartime buddy of Napoleon, the narrator’s irascible, alcoholic, chain-smoking dreamer of a father. But then, just as the story seems to be finally rolling along, Skibsrud pulls the reader out of the action with a confusing timeline (“That night” is actually a week later), a third person subjective narrator who seems to be able to read other characters’ thoughts (Henry tells us how a megaphone felt in Owen’s hand and that Owen’s grandfather left a steadying hand on his grandson’s shoulder, “Unaware that he did so….”). We are also distracted by the frequent interpolation of first person narration that breaks up Henry’s story with a less than confident voice that includes many “I guesses,” “it seemeds,” and “I thoughts.”
The writer appears to understand her essential literary challenge when she writes, “[it’s] funny isn’t it? The way we always position ourselves at that centre of our own stories.” Skibsrud drew heavily on the actual wartime experience of her late father when writing her first novel. She would have done well to let her father, or his fictional counterpart, take control of the story instead of confusing us with the unsure ruminations of a narrator with no name.
B.A. Markus is a writer, musician, and mother living in Montreal.