I can’t imagine two first-time novels being more different than The Bone Cage and Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize winner The Sentimentalists. The former relies heavily on the meat and potatoes of narrative writing while the latter delivers a slow evocative story with beautiful, lyrical passages that pause (sometimes endlessly) on details that don’t often advance the story.
Johanna Skibrud clearly lends her poetic talents to this thoughtful exploration of the impact of war and memory on family and the isolation it creates in generations that come long after the war is over.
Napoleon Haskell is an American Vietnam war veteran who leaves his North Dakota trailer home and moves to Casablanca, Ontario to live with Henry, the father of his best friend Owen, who died under mysterious circumstances during the war. His grown, daughter, whose own life is at a crossroads, goes to spend the summer with her father and Henry at the old house where she had spent many summers as a child.
She goes there to find a way to recover from her own loneliness and unhappiness by trying to understand her father’s life a little bit better. This is no easy task as her father is a happy-go-lucky drunk who never discusses the past. But slowly over the months, he tells her a little bit about his experiences in the war and later through a historian researching the incident at Quang Tri, she learns a slightly different story from what her father told her. So what is the truth? Her father’s version of the events or the transcript of the hearings?
In the end it doesn’t matter if what we remember is different from what took place. It’s these ghosts, however imperfect, however, that animate Napoleon’s life and now also his family’s life. Ghosts thread their way through this story and are as real as people and events themselves because of the power they hold over their hearts and memories.
Napoleon asks his daughter to use this as his epitaph after he is gone, “Simplify me when I am dead”. I think this is a beautiful line and is evocative of how memory serves us. We don’t remember the details, we forget them as time goes by, so that we are left only with the essence or the feeling of someone or something.
There are times admittedly when I found this book a bit frustrating to read. Johanna Skibsrud is lovingly able to hold us in a moment much longer than most of feel comfortable. This book abounds in poetic lyricism and still she is able to render a moment or a thought just so beautifully that it is more than worth the journey. This maybe isn’t always the easiest read but I believe it’s well-worth the journey.