Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Sentimentalists

Johanna Skibsrud's novel, The Sentimentalists, (UK), (Can), was the surprise winner this year at Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize.  And having recently finished the novel, let me tell you, no one is more surprised than me.  I feel a little bit guilty saying that; The Sentimentalists is Skibsrud's first novel and I generally give new authors some slack for their shortcomings, but, well, actually, I don't really feel that guilty.  She just won a $40,000 literary prize and is probably jet-setting around the globe or lunching with Margaret Atwood right now, and I'm sitting around eating potato salad and writing this blog.

The Sentimentalists deals chiefly in memory and personal legacy, and follows an unnamed first-person narrator, who is dealing with the infidelity of her former partner, and the looming, pending death of her father.  The narrator moves in with her father and his friend in the fictional town of Casablanca, and tries to pry her father's memories of the Vietnam War out of him, which is cool, because I really feel that war is an underrepresented subject in literature these days.  Right?  No one is writing about war, and no one is automatically winning literary awards just for talking about war in their novels.  Right?

What's the problem with the novel?  First of all, it really annoys me when writers don't give their protagonists names.  I'm sure there is some profound, thematic reason for leaving her nameless, but I don't care.  I want to know her damn name.  That quibble might seem like a small thing, but as a character, Nameless Nelly is left as blank as her name.  We're given no reason to care about her.  So I didn't.  And when you don't care about the protagonist of the story, you tend not to care about...the story.

But what bothered me even more was the unforgivably clunky writing style.  I hate clunky writing. To Hades with it!  I know that some people tend to consider writing style to be of secondary importance; according to them, bad writing can simply be something we have to endure to absorb great ideas from an otherwise great writer.  Bull.  Dear authors, hear me now, your writing style IS your novel.  In Skibsrud's case, her novel cannot get away from her needlessly convoluted and wooden sentences.

I don't mean to be overly critical.  I mean, the novel isn't The DaVinci Code, or anything.  There are occasional flashes of brilliance, and glimpses of a great mind.  Just when my eyes were glazing over with the most boredom, some little insight of the novel would reach in and rip my heart out, reminding me of some old pain I had forgotten.  The narrator's father is an almost great character who almost crackles off the page with ornery pain and repentance.  Skibsrud could be a great writer.  But reading this little novel, which only measures about 200-pages long, I was reminded of one of my mother's favourite phrases:  it draaaaags along as slowly as molasses in January.

But hey, maybe she'll get better.  It's only her first novel.  But do you know when some people might not feel the need to improve their craft?  When they're given thousands of dollars and well-respected awards for their less-than-remarkable efforts.