Culture & Conversation

The Bigness of Things

“Somewhere, that is, between the verifiable and measurable tick and the ensuing, and otherwise unremarkable, tock…” Johanna Skibsrud moulds time and space to investigate the contents of what is shared and isn’t shared between friends, close relations and strangers.

This Will Be Difficult to Explain, Johanna Skibsrud’s follow-up to the 2010 Giller Prize winning The Sentimentalists, is a collection of nine short stories, four of which have interconnected characters, that takes place in a multitude of settings and locations from a farm to Paris, from an art gallery to the USA, and more.

Skibsrud crafts her stories like she is in the cutting room of a film. She disjoints narrative chronology, jumping into different characters lives at different times, creating partially formed images that mimic the fragmented nature of memories, knowledge, and personal and communal narrative.

There are brief moments of clarity that punctuate the stories, such as the realisation “This is what it feels to be grown up,” but there is complexity behind the arrival of these moments. In that vein – and contained in the central theme and title This Will Be Difficult to Explain- the characters struggle to articulate themselves; reflecting this experience, you never quite get the full story and situations are rarely transparent.

Skibsrud experiments with space, the fundamental axis of our language, “It was just, for the first time, an uninterrupted vision of that which stretched, toward nowhere in particular, in between everything.” These feel warm and grounded, such as when Martha, in Signac’s Boats, appreciates in a painting by Paul Signac that “…small points of colour maintained themselves independently of the image they conveyed, while at the same time they gave themselves up to it entirely”.

Skibsrud explores the possibilities of the short story and its relation to poetry and the long-form novel. With a rhythmical sensibility she repeats “of things” as she closes thoughts, as in “regular order of things”, “other sense of things”, “the inevitable depreciation of things”, “the relative smallness and bigness of things.”

In retrospect, the boundary between the stories becomes somewhat hazy, with the lasting images not being the surprising plot points but the careful examination of particular situations. With respect to the terseness of the stories, in comparison to a novel, my emotive and habitual self was happy that some characters reappeared again in later stories.

This Will Be Difficult to Explain was written over a parallel period of time to The Sentimentalists and the style, tone and underlying literary investigation are similar. The frequent overly packaged and punctuated sentences of The Sentimentalists have mellowed and the plot and the surgically precise language are better integrated, providing more fluidity.

In This Will Be Difficult to Explain Skibsrud’s meticulous craft delicately articulates our liberating and terrifying attempts to harness language, art, and our lives.

For more see my recent interview with Johanna Skibsrud.

Martyn Bryant is a writer based in Montreal (


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