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The Sentimentalists [Paperback]

Johanna Skibsrud
1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

5 Jan 2012
Haunted by the horrific events he witnessed during the Vietnam War, Napoleon Haskell is exhausted from years spent battling his memories. As his health ultimately declines, his two daughters move him from his trailer in North Dakota to Casablanca, Ontario, to live with the father of a friend who was killed in action. It is to Casablanca, on the shores of a man-made lake beneath which lie the remains of the former town, that Napoleon's youngest daughter also retreats when her own life comes unhinged. Living with the two old men, she finds her father in the twilight of his life and rapidly slipping into senility. With love and insatiable curiosity, she devotes herself to learning the truth about him; and through the fog, Napoleon's past begins to emerge.

Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Windmill Books (5 Jan 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 009955836X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099558361
  • Product Dimensions: 13.4 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,197,538 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Remarkable ... will stay with you long after you read the last page." (Claire Messud)

"Deeply moving ... I was engrossed by the elegant plotting and intelligent writing ... I was, simply, moved to tears" (Patrick Ness Guardian)

"Rich, evocative prose reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson ... loaded with emotional resonance." (Observer)

"Beautiful ... subtle, sharp and truthful" (The Times)

"An outstanding novel ... the emotional power is relentless. A sense of longing courses through the narrative, yet the irony of the title is well served; this is an intelligent, reserved novel, and is all the more moving for the restrained dignity that conveys not only the regrets but also the anger... an allusive, intelligent and solemn work" (Eileen Battersby Irish Times)

Book Description

The Giller prize-winning novel: an astonishing debut from a major new discovery

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not for me 26 Aug 2011
This debut novel, a sombre story of the unreliability of memory and the emotional ghosts of war won its author the prestigious Scotianbank Giller Prize in 2010.

Skibsrub's background as a poet stands out immediately. The prose is heavy in precision, mainly focussing on words and turns of phrases and less on the action and character development. In my humble opinion this book is overwritten, it is composed with an astounding play on words and over use of adjectives that may be appealing to some but not all.

The novel is narrated by an unnamed person who returns to stay with her father, a Vietnam War veteran. She recalls her father's life in a meandering voice that moves between the present and the past and shifts rather awkwardly between Fargo, ND and Casablanca, Ontario and the battlefields of Vietnam.

The first half of the book was so tedious it fast became boring and I simply lost interest, only 200 pages and I couldn't stick with it till the end ...Something I rarely do...So in all fairness I leave others to be the judge
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 2.3 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Subtle, Beautiful and Haunting 27 Jun 2011
By SmokedGouda - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I, too, found some of the prose in this novel difficult to wade through. Especially in the first half of the novel, the long, wandering sentences often felt imprecise and clunky. Yet, as I continued reading, I was able to find a beautiful sense of longing in the meditative, meandering voice of the narrator, which, in turn, subtly established the novel's thematic underpinnings. Skibsrud invites us, as readers, to sift through what is murky on the surface and to piece together meanings and truths that lie beyond what is visible. And as we read, we mimic this search alongside the characters within her book. Ultimately, our--the characters' and the readers'--experiences dovetail into a beautiful and haunting story about the power of the unseen, of the past, and of narrative itself.
34 of 43 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Awkward First Novel 3 Dec 2010
By Richard Pittman - Published on
The Sentimentalists was the surprise winner of Canada's top book award, the Giller Prize.

It was the ultimate underdog. It was printed by the Gaspereau Press, a small independent publisher that is very focused on producing high quality books. The first printing was only 800 copies.

After the Giller win, a likeminded press with larger capacity produced the book. This was a win-win situation.

This book winning the Giller was a very good story.

Unfortunately, it's not a great book. The main plot revolves around a woman who is learning about her father and all that he went through in the Viet Nam War. It quickly cuts back and forth across time. I found the time and place shifts to be very awkward.

Skibsrud has potential but I think the Giller jury became caught up in the underdog apsect of this.

I don't recommend the Sentimentalists.

There were good moments in this book but I think the awkwardness of a first novel really showed.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Meandering 24 July 2011
By Julie A. Smith - Published on
The description gives a great idea of the plot, so I won't summarize it here.

This novel won the Giller Prize in 2010, and was the Globe and Mail Top 100 Book in Canadian Fiction in 2010 as well.

I will NOT use the trite, "I WANTED to like this book, but" line. I didn't want to like it; I expected to like it because of the awards it won, but I'm guessing that I would need to be more of an "intellectual" reader to do so. Although the description makes it seem as though the book revolves around the unnamed daughter trying to find out about her father's life, that's not necessarily so. It revolves around a number of things, and her father's years in Vietnam only come into play very late in the book.

The things it revolves around: some rather unsettling glimpses of the narrator's self-described out-of-body experiences (one at an intersection in her city after finding her boyfriend of six years with another woman), an unfinished boat (the Petrel) begun by her father as a labor of love for her mother before their divorce, a wheelchair-bound man named Henry Carey who lives in a government house in Casablanca, Ontario, a reformed alcoholic father who slips back off the wagon when he finds that he is ill, and a lot of philosophical asides, i.e.:

But, as I floated over Henry's old house, and did and did not listen to myself, it occurred to me that the reverse of the thing was also as 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.

Now .. if you can understand the above paragraph the first time through without slowing down or backtracking, and if you LIKE the above paragraph, this may be the book for you.

Sad to say, it wasn't the book for me. Although the writing is smart, and quite often emotionally atmospheric, it also meanders rather disconnectedly, with brief bursts of recollections. If you've ever been having a conversation about one thing and it brings something totally disconnected to mind, that's kind of how this reads.

There is a point in the book where we start to hear Henry's story, but it is never completed. We never find out what put Henry in the wheelchair, even though there is a clue early on that we will.

We get what we think is her father's story in Vietnam, but what actually happened is rather unclear and muddy even in the telling of it. We DO know that it ends up in a court hearing after an investigation of 2 1/2 years. The only clear item is the Epilogue, which includes the court transcription, but, because it negates what we THINK we just read, it also becomes an item of ambiguity.

In the end, I wondered "Why?". The author shows promise, but the writing needs to be tightened down and there really should be something solid to hold the reader's interest. Pretty language with no real plot, or, at best, a plot that confuses the average reader and leaves them wondering what they missed, does not a great novel make.

QUOTES (from an ARC; may be different in final copy):

A sad and irreversible change had occurred, it seemed, and the great and open space which I had always felt within me, that I had thought, in fact, had been me, had disappeared, so finally that I could not hope, I thought, to resurrect it, or feel again that lightness at the exact centre of my heart as I had on so many occasions before.

It's funny, isn't i? The way that we always position ourselves at the centre of our own stories, and that even from some distance - even relegated to the third person, and, from the present tense at least two times removed - we continue to imagine ourselves in that way.

Napoleon's feet are, it turns out, no worse than anyone's. They are, all of them, bloody and white, with fungus and stuff that looks rotten. He's surprised about that, about how his are no worse when he'd thought his were the worst in the world. That there they had been, marching along, together, all of them with the very worst feet in the world.

Writing: 3 out of 5 stars
Plot: 2 out of 5 stars
Characters: 2 out of 5 stars
Reading Immersion: 2 out 5 stars

BOOK RATING: 2.5 out of 5 stars
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very Confusing! 5 April 2011
By S. Schwartz - Published on
I was surprised to not really enjoy this book. I have been reading all the Giller Prize winner books and have really enjoyed them. This one won the prize in 2010 and I expected a fantastic book, but to me it wasn't. I found it rambling and unclear and didn't really get the message or the plot at all. In fact, I didn't understand the point and am disappointed. I don't think I'd recommend this book.
5.0 out of 5 stars A story that will embed itself in your soul. 15 Nov 2013
By Kathleen M. Rodgers - Published on
I've waited three years to read "The Sentimentalists,” the 2010 Giller-Prize-winning novel by Johanna Skibsrud. The story goes back and forth in time and takes us to a spliced together trailer home in Fargo, ND, a government house on a manmade lake in Casablanca, Ontario, and to the haunting images of a torched village in the jungles of South Vietnam. Although I found the writing wordy and convoluted at times, I couldn’t put the book down. Told through the voice of an unnamed narrator – a grown daughter in search of her Marine father’s past - I needed to know the origin of Napoleon’s history of broken promises, half-finished dreams, and why he fled to the shores of a manmade lake in Canada to live with Henry, a man whose son was killed in Vietnam.

I ordered the paperback from Indigo Books (Canada) within days of the novel winning the prestigious literary award. I live in Texas, and the novel wasn’t yet available in the United States. Originally published by a tiny press with an initial print run of 800 copies, the novel was picked up by a larger Canadian publisher and eventually republished in the United States. Time and my own writing kept me from reading the story until now, and I am so glad I waited.

So much of Napoleon's character reminded me of my own father who passed away recently. Both men harbored troubled souls, smoked cigarettes like it was an art form, and told stories that left you with more questions than answers. But both were good men. Because of the author’s circular writing style, I found myself re-reading whole passages as I tried to feel my way through the story. So many times I wanted to put the book down and rail at the author, and yet… I kept reading, turning pages, and when I got to the end, I took a deep breath, like Napoleon holding cigarette smoke in his lungs, and then I exhaled. That’s when I realized I was crying.

Highly recommended if you love literary fiction that makes you think…and feel.

Kathleen M. Rodgers ~ author of Amazon’s #1 Top Rated War Fiction (2012)
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