The Sentimentalists

March 9, 2011

Gasperau Press, 2009, 216 pages hardcover, $27.95 /
Douglas and McIntyre, 2010, 216 pages paperback, $19.95
Reviewed by Arleen Paré

In 2010, Johanna Skidsrud won the Scotia Bank Giller Prize for her novel, The Sentimentalists. This alone guaranteed increased sales for the book, originally published by Gasperau, a small Nova Scotia press, but the resulting controversy about the inability of Gasperau’s small print run to meet post-award book sale demands resulted in greater publicity.   This is Skidsrud’s first novel, again unusual for a Giller Prize winner.   The Sentimentalists is a fine novel; it deserves the attention it received.

The Sentimentalists tells the story of an unnamed female narrator who lives with her alcoholic father, Napoleon Haskell, through the summer he dies of cancer.  During this time, he describes his experiences in the Vietnam War.  The two live with Henry, an old man whose town was flooded by the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s.  Henry’s son, Owen, Napoleon’s war buddy, was killed mysteriously in Vietnam.  The novel, though ostensibly Napoleon’s daughter’s story, told largely from her point of view, focuses primarily on Napoleon.   It begins with Napoleon’s house: “The house my father left behind in Fargo, North Dakota, was never really a house at all.  Always instead, it was the idea of a house.”   As the novel begins, so it proceeds, dealing more with ideas, the hidden and incomplete, more with the invisible than the visible.  The boat her father tries to build never becomes a boat.  Henry’s flooded town was not ever a town.   Her father’s story is pocked with holes.  Owen’s death remains unsolved.

Skidsrud is also a poet.  Her first poetry collection, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys appeared in 2008.   Skidsrud and Gasperau have a Nova Scotia-based history, but now Skidsrud lives in Montreal and The Sentimentalist is published by Vancouver’s Douglas and McIntyre.  Douglas and McIntyre bought publishing rights from Gasperau when the artisan press and printer couldn’t keep pace with post-Giller printing demands.   I have both editions.  They are similar-sized, but the original is slightly thicker, denoting the better quality of paper used.  It’s a handsome book.  The second version, the version most will purchase, is standard:  less subtle, less handsome.   I must be a sentimentalist.  I read the second version, unwilling to blemish the first.

The Sentimentalists might never have been published at all if Gasperau, mainly a poetry press, hadn’t originally given it a contract.  The novel is sufficiently unorthodox that it might not have been accepted by more mainstream publishers.  But its unconventionality and poetic qualities are what make it interesting, prize-winningly so.  As a poet, I appreciate that Skidsrud employs poetic diction and complex syntax, but I think most readers will.  Typical fiction publishers would have considered her long, multi-claused sentences to be excessive, ungrammatical, perhaps, eschewing their rhythmic qualities and philosophical weight.  They might have worried about the novel’s ephemeral narrative, its unlikely plot turns, its phantom-like characters, its shifting points of view, its fictionally unsatisfactory ending.   Traditional fiction-heavy publishers might have balked at the following paragraph:

But as I floated over Henry’s house, and did and did not listen to myself, it occurred to me that the reverse of the thing was also true.  That instead of disappearing – or equally, as we disappeared – we also existed more heavily, in layers.  And that by remaining, as in floodwater, always at the surface of everything, though our points of reference begin to slowly change, it is always so slight a transition, moment to moment, that it is almost always imperceptible.

I savoured every sentence, all six or seven lines of every sentence, in thrall to Skidsrud’s language, her skill to lead the reader through each thoughtful convolution.  The book is beautiful and provocative.  And the mystery remains: how The Sentimentalists slipped through the strict fiction standards to win Canadian fiction’s finest award.

That Gaspereau did not balk highlights the importance of Canada’s small presses.  Some will take literary chances.  Some are loyal to their authors.  But then the almost punitive reversal: when a small press author wins big, a big press must step in, because the small press cannot afford to support the prize.  This dynamic, where risk-taking and discovery on the part of small presses is followed by acquisition and profit by larger presses demonstrates the importance of public support for both large and small Canadian publishers, so that Canadians can go on enjoying such prize-winning novels.

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