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Rereading: The Sentimentalists

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud | edge of evening

When I was younger, and we had come to Henry’s house alone in those solitary summers of my father’s disappearance, I had imagined that the past really existed, semi-submerged, in Henry’s backyard. Wouldn’t that be enough for anyone? I’d thought. To explain that certain sadness, which I identified sometimes in him. A sadness that would make you, when you saw it, want to pull the edges of your own life up around you, and stay there, carefully, inside. 

Now, though, I find it difficult to believe that anything is ever buried in the way that I had once supposed. I believe instead that everything remains. At the very limit; the exact surface of things. So that in the end it is not so much what has been subtracted form a life that really matters, but the distances, instead, between the things that remain.The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud

I have a bookcase, the bookcase B bought me for my 30th birthday, in which I keep only the books that have struck me in some special world-changing way. Many of them are the books that have given me the thrill of feeling that I’ve never read anything quite like them before. The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud’s first novel after a collection of poetry, has been on one of these shelves since I first read it in the summer of 2012. Rereading it, I have only loved it more.

I love it for its language, its emotion and precision, and its technical daring. In its 210 pages it folds a story of a daughter’s love for her father with the story of what may or may not have happened to him during the Vietnam war, events which, in turn, have silently rippled outwards through his marriage and divorce, through her childhood, and into the present of the story, his final months of life. It’s a book about memory and its limits, about the horror of war, and ultimately about the unknowability of the past which, nonetheless, echoes into the present.

It also, admittedly, has a lot of sentences like the ones in my last paragraph: long, heavy with subclauses and interruptions. Kerry tipped me off that it received a very mixed reaction as the surprise winner of the 2010 Giller Prize. (And this, of course, reminded me of poor Penelope Fitzgerald & the 1979 Booker Prize.) A quick look on Goodreads confirmed that it’s far from popular with many — one review even made me laugh, despite myself, with its parody of her style.

But, I’m fine with those sentences. I’m fine with the distance people have felt from the narrator (who, after all, suffers what might be considered a breakdown at the start of the second section of the book). I’m fine with it all because Skibsrud’s book constructs its own enactment of the impossibility of ever knowing anything completely: you can never know a person completely, just as you can never know the past completely. And this enactment depends on the things that go unsaid, on alternative versions, on unreliable testimony, and on the confusion and disorientation of conflict and of dying. I would argue that the sentences in The Sentimentalists are just a part of that construction — they hesitate, correct themselves and allow us always to sense the gap between what is known and what remains unknowable.

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Memory. Rereading always brings me back to the place where I first read the book. A bell tent in the south of France the summer I was pregnant with the Pip-Pop. At night we would tuck the children into bed, then wash-up in the open-sided outdoor kitchen. There was a single light bulb  and we would read beneath it, eating a row of Milka chocolate each. It was late August. The red soil was dry and cracked. The days were hot, but there was already a hint of autumn — in the mistral, in the thunderstorms. One night a storm flooded the tent. For two or three hours thunder and lightning were just a second apart. Rain was pouring onto the children’s beds, but they slept on. We lifted them into our bed, which had the metal-tipped pole of the bell tent at its foot. I was convinced we would die.

The morning was blue-skied. We drank hot chocolate. The water was ankle deep in the tent & B swept it out with a broom. For the rest of the holiday the little ones slept top to tail in the drier of the beds.

8 Comments

  1. I love the description of your bookcase. I sometimes imagine that I’m going to pare my library down to just those sorts of books. I’ve never read The Sentimentalists – but you’ve convinced me to seek it out.

    • Yes — I also sometimes wonder why I keep the rest. But I do cheat a little: poetry & classics also have their own shelves, & many of those are pretty special too!

  2. I agree with Louise! Life, and its beautiful complicated sentences; and books that reflect the intricate meandering textures of the days and experiences we can’t forget and need to explore.

    • I always love your sentences, Theresa. They’re so fluid and graceful and controlled. You’ve made me think of this from one of A.S.Byatt’s essays in ‘On Histories & Stories’: “A good modern sentence proceeds evenly, loosely joined by commas, and its feel is hypothetical, approximate, unstructured, and always aiming at an impossible exactness which it knows it will not achieve.”

    • Thank you, Kerry! I picked up ‘This Will Be Difficult to Explain’ in the library yesterday. After reading your review I really want to reread it.

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