Friday, January 14, 2011

THE SENTIMENTALISTS by Johanna Skibsrud (2009) Gaspereau Press

Let me begin by confessing that I have an M.A. in English Literature and that the time I spent in graduate school has me predisposed to perhaps not only read fiction regarded dull by others, but also perversely to seem to enjoy it.

When Johanna Skibsrud was named the recipient of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize (ostensibly the finest book of fiction published in Canada in a given year) by the three-member jury of broadcaster Michael Enright and novelists Claire Messud and Ali Smith, I was curious to read her novel THE SENTIMENTALISTS. Published by Gaspereau Press, a small east-coast firm that takes pride in its fine product, this novel was the talk of the town last fall because another house joined Gaspereau to keep up with the demand for copies after Skibsrud was crowned the Giller Princessa in November.

Before opening THE SENTIMENTALISTS I'd already read three of the other four short-listed titles: Kathleen Winter's ANNABEL, Sarah Selecky's THIS CAKE IS FOR THE PARTY and Alexander MacLeod's LIGHT LIFTING. Each of those three books impressed me both stylistically and in terms of engaging storytelling. I couldn't imagine, really, how the winner could be decidedly more accomplished.

Well, I was right about that.

THE SENTIMENTALISTS is clunky and dull and wants for narrative drive until page 109 (out of 218 pages) where the pace is at least lively and the characters temporarily engaging. The Epilogue is a tagged on interview that for me was an irritant and did not contribute to my greater understanding of the protagonist and his demons.

In a season in which there were such strong titles as Steven Heighton's EVERY LOST COUNTRY and Alison Pick's FAR TO GO that were neglected by the shortlist makers, I am truly baffled as to why this book made it to the top of the list.

If you disagree with me, please let me know. I would like to try to understand what I missed.


red-handed said...

It seemed the small-press story eclipsed the actual book. Brave of you to voice the unpopular review!

Loucas Raptis said...

I agree with you too (, especially after I read Annabel. Let's just say I survived The Sentimentalists, and I didn't want to emphatically diminish it because I fought through a book I didn't actually liked (something that I rarely put myself through). But I am making a genuine effort to understand what literary prizes are all about, and, overall, I don't really like what I see. I noticed you did get a Gaspereau edition - it is at least a piece of Canadian literary history.