'The Sentimentalists': Submerged Emotions Surface Johanna Skibsrud's award-winning debut novel about an alcoholic father's relationship with his adult daughters was written for a master's thesis at Concordia University. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says the language of the story settles deep into a reader's consciousness.
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'The Sentimentalists': Submerged Emotions Surface

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'The Sentimentalists': Submerged Emotions Surface

Review

Book Reviews

'The Sentimentalists': Submerged Emotions Surface

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TERRY GROSS, host:

In Canada, literary types are talking about Johanna Skibsrud. Here in the U.S. we're still learning how to pronounce her name. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of Skibsrud's award-winning first novel "The Sentimentalists."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: This is the kind of novel that the traditional publishing industry isn't supposed to have room for any longer: a slim debut novel graced by inventive language and a haunting atmosphere. In other words, a novel that, if it's lucky, will attract maybe 15 readers outside of the author's family. But Johanna Skibsrud's novel "The Sentimentalists" has already had more than its share of first-time work of fiction luck. In addition to getting picked up by Norton, it's been blurbed by the serious likes of Claire Messud and won what's billed as Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Who knew?

I can see why "The Sentimentalists" has broken out from the anonymous finely wrought first novel pack. For all the ways that "The Sentimentalists" feels a bit belabored - its imagery too insistent with meaning - the melancholy mood and restrained language of the story settles deep into a reader's consciousness. At one point the primary narrator of the novel sadly observes that the possibilities of a life, it seemed, were small. That line is already firmly wedged into the wrinkle of my brain filled with quotes from Emily Dickinson and Laurie Colwin.

The situation of "The Sentimentalists" is this: A sagging alcoholic Vietnam vet named Napoleon Haskell is moved by his two adult daughters from the trailer he's been living in in Fargo, North Dakota to a house on the shores of a lake in Ontario. This is the home of a family friend named Henry, who's the father of Napoleon's Marine Corps buddy, killed in the war. This is no swanky vacation lodge, however. Henry's house is referred to as the government house because it was paid for by the Canadian government after his original farmhouse and surrounding fields were flooded by an engineering project. The lake that Henry, Napoleon and Napoleon's daughters like to boat on is a manmade watery shroud for the town of Casablanca, Ontario that was deliberately drowned by fiat.

"The Sentimentalists" takes its cue from the image of that creepy lake. It's a novel that's obsessed with feelings and events long submerged and only now half discerned. There's the pearl-sized lump that is discovered, just in time, on Napoleon's elder daughter's ovary. Then there are the hidden emotional revelations. Our unnamed narrator, Napoleon's younger daughter, eventually confesses that she has the leisure for an extended stay with her failing father because her fiance back in Brooklyn has cheated on her. It was not a grand passion, which paradoxically makes the breakup even sadder.

Here's how she diagnoses the state of things: I had thought, having learned the lesson from my divorced mother, that it was foolish to ask for too much out of life. But what pain, I thought now, could be greater than to realize that even the practical reality for which you had assumed to settle upon did not hold, that even that was illusory. Would it not be better then to set your sights on some more fantastic and rare dream from which even in failing you might take some comfort in having once aspired?

As you can hear, the language of "The Sentimentalists" is thoughtful, slightly ornate - which, to me, is one of the pleasures of this novel. Napoleon is one of those spottily educated working-class guys who likes to declaim from what his daughter characterizes as a secret store of poetry and song lyrics and movie quotations. Those random poetic lines - along with a steady infusion of beer - help keep Napoleon's personal nightmares of history at bay, though the last third of "The Sentimentalists" is an extended flashback to Vietnam. This ending section is much more direct and even callous - than the preceding chapters. Again, the lake waters that blanket the sharp fences and steeples of the drowned town of Casablanca are invoked. The oblique opening of "The Sentimentalists" doesn't prepare a reader for what lies beneath.

"The Sentimentalists," as I've said, is a little heavy-handed, but if you're willing to pay that price of admission, it distinctly summons up a world out of time - one where a father and daughter get to sit over crossword puzzles and cans of beer and stale sandwiches as they contemplate the mysteries that they are to each other. For the rare dad, it could be a good Father's Day gift, though I think it's a better fit for all you daughter-readers out there who are still trying to figure the old man out.

GROSS: Marine Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Sentimentalists" by Johanna Skibsrud. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can download podcasts of our show.

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