Too much ‘sentiment’, not enough story

The surprise winner of the 2010 Giller Prize for best English-Canadian fiction, “The Sentimentalists” by Johanna Skibsrud (Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto, 2010, 218 pages) is both an artistic and political disappointment. The judges went a little overboard with their laudable encouragement of the young poet-turned-novelist. They are apparently willing to overlook tortuous sentence structure, a painful over-indulgence in bracketed subordinate clauses, and dense lyricism that suffocates an interesting story-line. Frequent bursts of creative metaphoric prose do not rescue Skibsrud’s stumbling transition to the novel form.

“The Sentimentalists” could have channelled the intense public interest in war crimes, post-traumatic stress disorder and wikileaks. It is a tale told by the daughter of a Vietnam war veteran. Her dad, haunted by the horror of an actual massacre by U.S. Marines of a village of Vietnamese peasants in 1967, leaves his North Dakota trailer and moves to a small Ontario town.

There the vet lives with the father of his soldier buddy, who died mysteriously, possibly the victim of an attempted cover-up. The daughter has issues too – a failed romantic relationship, estrangement from her frequently-absent, alcoholic father – but the more she learns about the horrors that contorted their lives, the more she concludes that the past is irretrievably subjective and ultimately unknowable.

This novel is a missed opportunity. It could have dramatized a compelling history that has contemporary resonance. It could have situated it in today’s big picture of power, profit and the system’s multi-million victims. Connecting past and present wars of imperial intervention, and linking the toxic fogs that they propagate, alas, is a job for another writer. -Barry Weisleder