Johanna Skibsrud has lived every aspiring Canadian author’s dream: come up with a novel idea to honour your dead relative, get a Canada Arts Council grant to write it, include a wealth of references to poetry and literature of your choice, get the novel printed through a small publisher you love, then, magically, find yourself the winner of the Scotia Bank Giller Prize, with your book suddenly in such high demand that the uber-publisher Douglas & McIntyre picks it up. Skibsrud has birthed a unicorn of modern publishing: a book that stays true to an author’s heart while attaining popular approval and financial success.
It is easy to see why The Sentimentalists attracts critical attention. The book, while anchored in narrative, is primarily philosophical, questioning the nature of truth in our experiences and in their retelling, and how our perception of truth and consequence shapes our relationships and our lives. Skibsrud’s incorporation of famous poetry and pop culture is also strong. The references to e.e. cummings, Keith Douglas, and the movie Casablanca genuinely enrich and deepen the narrative. Also, Skibsrud is an award-winning poet, and the influence of poetry is evident in her prose. She is able to embody within the reader the atmosphere of a dream. The book reads fast and seems to float across the mind, so that the first things you think of when asked to describe the book is not the plot or characters, but instead the feel of the book – a world of warped time and images of moments.
The plot, however, is less than award-winning, if only because it has won awards before – family generational drama, the staple of contemporary Canadian fiction. Children coming to terms with the reality of their parent’s individuality, parents struggling to adapt to the grown-up children, divorce… The family has become quite possibly the most common subject of fiction with hopes of being considered literature. Unfortunately, the repetition has killed the drama in family drama. Skibsrud does offer a new twist on this common theme: her characters are mostly American, although Canada supplies the central setting; and the drama is generated by the father’s experience in the Vietnam War (a topic previously ignored in popular culture, right?) However, the story ultimately boils down to an echo of many books that have come before.
The Sentimentalists, despite the hand-me-down plot, should be considered a significant book, not so much for its contents, but for the reminder that it provides. Skibsrud has reminded everyone that Canadian literature continues to grow and evolve and produce promising young talent – Atwood is not the only writer in Canada, after all.