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Review: The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

The Sentimentalists is a debut novel by Johanna Skibsrud, the youngest author to be short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize since it debuted in 2004 with a nomination for then 29-year-old Shyam Selvardurai. This beautifully designed book - no surprise since it originates from the aesthetes at Gaspereau Press - is a sombre story about the emotional ghosts of war and the unreliable nature of memory. Children of the vibrant boomer generation dealing uncomfortably with their aging parents will likely, as I did, find much to relate to.

Skibsrud's background as a poet is obvious and allows the prose to unravel in segments, pacing slow and then fast, with attention paid to precision and rhythm. The book is heavier on rumination and thoughtful turns of phrase than action, plot or character development. There is a lot of focus on how things look and sound, and this is one of the strengths of the novel; the author's ability to capture the slow moments in life where one can really think about the meaning of grief, the purpose of family and the concept of home.

For the young narrator, shipped around every year as a child, the one place she still calls home is a house in Casablanca, Ont, belonging to Henry, whose son fought and died alongside her father, Napoleon, in the Vietnam war. Napoleon is the novel's most finely drawn character; a gruff but tenderhearted and comedic drinker who never fully recovered from an incident during the war he never speaks about, an incident based on one Skibsrud's own father lived through in Vietnam in 1967.

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The narrator is unnamed, and we do not know much about her, except the parts of her interested in uncovering her father's secrets before he dies, as a way to understand the choices he made as a father. The story is his, and we mostly learn about him through her eyes, as well as via third-person flashbacks to his army days, and the early life of Henry. We understand her to be kind, frustrated and escaping heartbreak, but we do not know what her adult life looked like before she escapes to spend the last few months of her father's life with him in the Casablanca house. Her absence from her own story is at times frustrating, as we don't always know what anchors her. We do get to see her in childhood, one of movement and abandonment by her father, and her struggles to find roots.

Like a lot of debut novels, The Sentimentalists can sometimes feel like a stumbling colt, with moments of astounding raw beauty and original wordplay. Conversely, there are moments the prose forgets to balance on its new legs. Readers will either love the sentences packed with adjectives and conjunctions, or find it overwritten, as in this example, about the arrival of her sister Helen for a visit: "As though we inhabited separate and remote corners of his illimitable and still-coveted prairie. As though all things had been leveled; emptied off. As though - if indeed we had thought to send them out - our shouts would have rung nearly soundlessly in our own ears, swallowed up by the unconquerable landscape between us, so long by then left untried."There are other instances where the prose could have benefited from a more rigorous edit.

Other times, Skibsrud nails the scene with a delightful precision. The narrator stays in bed, listening to Henry and her father banging around downstairs "shouting to each other across the hall in immense, pithecoid, monotones."

All in all, this is a solid debut and a beautiful tribute to a father-daughter relationship.

Zoe Whittall is adapting her first novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts, for film and working on her fourth novel.

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