19 Mar In which I read The Sentimentalists
Overall, I would have to say that it had come as a disappointment to live within the particularities of a life; to find that the simple arithmetic of things—which I thought I had learned by rote, but was now unsure from whom, or what it was that had been learned at all—was not so simple. That it was not, in fact, combination alone that increased the territory of living in the world. And that love did not, of its own accord, increase with time. That it could find itself just as easily divided by things. And that there was nothing to do when it left you but bite your tongue and wait for its return.
– The Sentimentalists
I approached The Sentimentalists with some trepidation. This slim first novel by Johanna Skibsrud has been so much discussed after upsetting expectations and winning the Giller Prize (not to mention the ensuing printing shortage), that I wasn’t sure what to expect. And to top it off, the book was loaned to me by a colleague whose verdict was less than rapturous. Neither she nor her book club had enjoyed it. Not enough character depth. And nothing really happens in it, she said.
These criticisms are true: the characters are more sketched than drawn, their lines fading in and out of the book’s aqueous setting; their personalities suggested, rather than pronounced. And nothing really does happen; the plot more meditative than electric.
But oh, how I love this book. The elusiveness of character and plot is a strength — in the same way that a poetic suggestion can be more powerful than a hard fact. In this world, time is a slow turning, the characters contemplating how and where life has washed them ashore. Yet, Skibsrud’s prose is more staccato than poetic. Hers is a unique voice, bursting and stuttering across the page; thoughts flying out and tumbling by the reader almost before you can catch them.
The Sentimentalists requires a quiet moment, uninterrupted reading. A pot of tea should be on hand. And contemplation and stillness to savour the words as they escape the page.