The Sentamentalists – Johanna Skibsrud

I’ve been thinking for a while that it would be good to try some Canadian authors. I’m not 100% sure but I think I may have read only one book so far and that was Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, winner of the Giller Prize in 2007, which although a little slow in places, was beautifully written and I enjoyed it.

With her debut novel The Sentamentalists, Johanna Skibsrud also won the Giller prize – in 2010. I had heard of it and was attracted by the tranquility of the cover, the slimness of the book and my expectations of a gentle and emotional read.

The book is written in a heart felt way about a daughter’s attempt to care for and understand her father as his health declines in his later years, an attempt to make sense of his time in Vietnam and how that experience affected his life and his ability to fully engage as a husband and father. It is obvious early on that her father has experienced post traumatic stress, has been an alcoholic and had deserted his family at one time. Towards the end of his life, his daughters move him to the home of an old friend, a place that had been like a second home to the family years earlier. As the narrator looks back on her childhood, she tries to fill in the gaps of her life and that of her father, mother and sister and that of Henry, whose house they share.

I’ve read a few books about older men trying to find peace in remote settings and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them. I can relate to the concept of nature and time as healers. Two books that spring to mind are Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (also about the effects of the Vietnam War on a man and his family) and J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace,. I found both of these to be excellent.

I really wanted to like The Sentamentalists. Johanna Skibsrud has written a sensitive story on a topic she has personal experience of and I could feel where she was coming from but unfortunately the pace was way too slow and the narrative disjointed. It just didn’t work for me. I persevered hoping it would click into place but on the whole it didn’t. I’m pleased I read it all though – it would have seemed almost disrespectful not to and there are two passages which made it worthwhile to keep going. They both related to the father Napoleon’s time in Vietnam, his sense of disorientation in particular and the horrors that he, as little more than a boy, experienced, were written very well.

Luckily not everyone agrees with my view of this book. One of the Guardian’s reviewers was ‘moved to tears’ and the Giller panel obviously found plenty about it to like.

Winner of the Giller Prize 2010

2009, 210 pages


6 responses to “The Sentamentalists – Johanna Skibsrud

  1. I bought this last week. Maybe it will work for me. We will see. It sounds as if it was good in places but not overall. I just read a book that got prizes and I didn’t like it.
    I like the idea of healing through nature. Disgrace is a book I liked a lot, so I will look up Wyld’s book.

    • Caroline – I’ll be really interested to see what you think of it when you read it. It was good in places and hopefully you will find a few more of them than I did. Do look up Wyld’s book, it is another with a quiet pace but very good I thought.

  2. I wasn’t a big fan of this book either. I agree that there were some fantastic passages, but I was bored for a lot of it.It does seem to be one of those books that divides opinion.

    • Jackie – I can see why some people might love it especially the subject matter is personal to them in some way. Unfortunately I can see also how you could have been bored – a shame.

  3. I won’t be reading this for sure! I love Disgrace a lot and since then it’s hard to read something from JM Coetzee that I love. Thanks for the honest review.

  4. Jo – You’re welcome and I also really liked Disgrace when I read it. I found it really raw and moving. I’ve read Summertime which I found quite odd and started reading another of his – might have been Elizabeth Costello. but got distracted and didn’t finish it.

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