February 3, 2011

I’m not sure what to make of this year’s Giller Prize winner, Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists. I usually like stories with shifting perspectives, connecting the present with the past, becoming cohesive only later on. And, at least through Tim O’Brien, I have become a devotee of literature “about” the war in Vietnam.

But I don’t know that The Sentimentalists ever did become cohesive…even within its un-cohesive-ness. I didn’t find it particularly memorable in style or in story. It was almost like an impressionist painting, rather than a novel.

By the end, though, there were a few beautiful lines:

“It made me sad then, and it still does, to think of it. And also not a little afraid. To think that despite our best intentions we may, in the end — and necessarily — leave the people that we love quite extraordinarily alone.”

I love that it could be “love quite extraordinarily”, or “quite extraordinarily alone”. Or both at once. That’s the sort of ambiguity I think the book was striving for, but somehow misses.

And this:

“And so, in these pages, I have also tried to record what I know to be true; the truth, anyway, as it exists at this, my own particular intersection of it; at this singular and otherwise obscure point along its complicated and transitional course. As it pauses here, I mean, almost imperceptibly, and for only so long, before continuing on, in its uncountable directions.

I think now that that’s really the most — the best — we can do: answer the questions that pose themselves to us, and describe, if only to ourselves, the things that we have loved, and believed in, and the actions that we have or would have liked to have taken, and will take now, and do take, over and over again, in the quiet parts of our minds.

But really, I find it hard to imagine any method at all of understanding the events of the twenty-second of October, 1967.  Or of the way that afterwards they repeated themselves, and continue to repeat themselves: in same or in variant forms, charting again their recurrent course. Among those who (long after the events themselves had shuttled into other moments, and other lives; disguising themselves in divergent sadnesses, misunderstandings, expectations and desires) witness them still. And among those who…were not aware of them at all, but likewise witnessed, and continue to witness them. Who likewise still hope to uncover, recognize, and subsequently comprehend their otherwise inexplicable presence in our lives.”

I can’t make up my mind whether that conclusion is beautiful in style and in thought, or whether it’s that the thought is significant enough to carry through the style. But I know that I don’t think the rest of the book lived up to this ending.