"The Sentimentalists" by Johanna Skibsrud

As he nears the end of his life, Napoleon Haskell has left his trailer in Fargo, North Dakota and moved to a small Ontario town. There he lives with Henry, the father of a fallen Vietnam comrade, on the shore of a manmade lake, under which is the wreckage of the town Henry was raised in. Once there, Napoleon hopes to leave behind the memories of the Vietnam War that he has kept secret for years.

When Napoleon's daughter arrives, she finds that her father is at that moment in life where memory becomes fragile. Out of love and curiosity she begins to ask her father about his life and though disjointed at times, the truth of his past begins to emerge.

The Sentimentalists is Johanna Skibsrud's first novel (she has previously published poetry) and it took many by surprise when it won the 2010 Giller Prize, Canada's most prestigious literary prize. Based on her own father's time in Vietnam, the novel explores our memories, their unreliability and their fragility.

While there isn't much to the plot, this book requires some seriously attentive reading. It jumps over time and place and the writing style hints at Skibsrud's poetic background. The Vietnam war memories, which one would think make up the book, actually take up little of the book and the rest is dedicated to setting up the story.

One place where I do have to give a lot of credit to Ms. Skibsrud is that while reading the book I honestly felt I was being told a story. Often when I read novels I hear them in my own voice, but with this book I felt as though I was sitting and listening to someone else tell me a story.

Having read quite a few of the Giller longlist this past season, I must admit I'm surprised that this book is the winner. When I first heard it had won I thought maybe a mistake was made. As I began reading I thought that my original opinion was wrong but unfortunately the book didn't grab me the way I had expected to it. And so, I am still surprised that this was the winner.


  1. This book does seem to divide opinion. I read the first chapter and wasn't inspired to read on. I don't think I'd enjoy a book with so little plot, and I'm not a big fan of poetry. I guess the Giller judges like this sort of thing


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