Truth Embedded in Fiction

Reviewed by Jan Lermitte

In the months since Skibsrud’s debut novel won the Giller prize, it has received as much attention for its design and for Gaspereau’s unique printing process (which resulted in a shortage of available copies), as for the poet’s success with her first work of fiction. Although the book recently won the Alcuin Society Prize for Excellence in Book Design in Canada, its aesthetic appeal belies the sombre subject matter of this intriguing father/daughter story. Skibsrud’s narrative, which combines family drama, humour, historical detail, and traumatic events, is loosely based on her father’s life. Included in the epilogue is the transcript of Skibsrud’s father’s courtroom testimony about an incident he witnessed while serving in Vietnam, which underlines her desire to play with the genre of memoir through two key themes: the construction of history from layers of memory and truth, and the tragic effects of combat on trauma victims and their families.

The Sentimentalists is the story of Napoleon Haskell, a Vietnam War veteran whose declining health has prompted his daughters to move him from his trailer in Fargo, North Dakota to Casablanca, Ontario to live with Henry, whose son Owen died in action in Vietnam and was Napoleon’s best friend. Like Rick, the protagonist played by Bogart in the movie, Casablanca (which provides some of the narrative framework of the novel), Napoleon’s life has been scarred by alcoholism and relationship breakdown. When Napoleon’s daughter, the unnamed narrator, arrives in Casablanca because her own life has been derailed, he tells her his memories of Vietnam. However, after hearing his stories she admits, “my own sense of these things was only further confounded, and sometimes now I’m astonished by the audacity of any attempt, including my own, at understanding anything at all.” This inability to make sense of the emotions and memories that are submerged beneath one’s consciousness resonates in the image of the lake that was created when Casablanca was flooded during the creation of a hydro-electric dam in the ’50s. Like the remains of the original town that lie below its surface, the memories and feelings that Napoleon and his daughter experience are often unclear and indistinct. Skibsrud’s narrative style reinforces this sense of confusion—especially through her unconventional use of long, rambling sentences and fragments.

Napoleon and his daughter are sentimentalists—people whose actions are often based more on emotions than reason. However, they also are profoundly affected by their sense of place, and the narrator details the spaces that define their lives. These places are marked by waiting: for action, for healing and for death. As Napoleon faces his own mortality, he quips in his best Bogart voice, “I’m gonna die in Casablanca.… It’s a good spot for it.” Although he is sorry for the pain he has caused his family, sorry for allowing them into “the world that he also inhabited,” ultimately he remains emotionally unavailable to those he loves.
Skibsrud’s novel, which has been compared to Anne Michael’s The Winter Vault, challenges the reader: the plot remains subservient to the language and character development; the rhythm of the narrative is poetic but occasionally ponderous; moreover, events are confusing and seen through the lens of the traumatic past. Although it could be described as a war novel, most of the plot does not focus on combat, but rather, sympathetically demonstrates the profound effect that trauma plays in the lives of individuals and their families. The histories we construct, Skibsrud reminds us, are full of gaps, losses and uncertainty, which must ultimately be faced or hidden.

This review “Truth Embedded in Fiction” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 179-180.

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