Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize–winning debut novel is often described as a Vietnam novel. That description is misleading. The Vietnam War only appears at the very edges of the first half of this short novel, and when it does become a focus, it seems like a vehicle for making a larger point about memory and truth. The Sentimentalists isn’t really about the war or war crimes or post-traumatic stress or the plight of veterans. It’s about truth and how we find it, or if we can find it.
The narrator is the adult daughter of Vietnam veteran Napoleon Haskell. The first half of the book is filled with her inchoate memories of her childhood and her father’s place in it. She and her sister have recently moved their father from a house he’d built in North Dakota from pieces of mobile homes to a room in the home of old family friend Henry, who lives on a lake in Canada where the girls and their father used to spend their summers. Eventually, the narrator, recovering from her own personal heartbreak, follows her father to the lake.
The story sounds conventional enough, but there’s very little about the telling that’s ordinary. The narrative wanders to a sometimes exasperating degree. It’s frustratingly difficult to pin down what is happening when and how the incidents are connected. Even individual sentences wander, with phrases inside phrases, surrounded by clauses inside clauses. Skibsrud’s background as a poet is evident, and the complex beauty of the language, along with the frequent water imagery, reminded me very much of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. But Robinson gave readers more of a narrative to hang on to, which makes her book more accessible. Sometimes, too, I thought a little tightening at the sentence level wouldn’t have done Skibsrud’s prose much harm and a fair bit of good. (I had to reread far too many sentences multiple times and still couldn’t make sense of some of them.)
That said, the bewildering structure and style serves Skibsrud’s larger point, which is that truth doesn’t fit into tidy patterns. Early in the book, the narrator remembers hearing Napoleon tell her mother that she can’t use the war to explain him; he simply cannot be reduced to a cliché of the traumatized veteran. As much as we want to fit people, and even ourselves, into tidy stories, it can’t be done, as the narrator realizes:
That I would never be able to understand it—not my own life, and certainly not the lives of others—because even the simplest things appeared to be the most complicated puzzles, for which I had only the most inadequate of clues. And that, by reading backwards along the lives of objects, and the things that I had learned piecemeal from my parents, and from the rest of the world, I was only being thrown farther and farther off course, and was by now very far from the straight and deep waters for which I had always felt I was somehow bound. And that, each time I’d thought I was coming closer to that unknown region I desired, I was actually following altogether a different route; a small estuary quite sideways to that true course of things, ending up in distant and uncomfortable regions I had never dreamed of visiting before.
Is it only now, through aggravation at the continued frustration of my attempts, or is it an accidental wisdom that somehow I’ve acquired? Which leads me finally to believe that the small estuaries to which I have been blown are just as true as the rest, and that the deep and open and still untried waters have been left uncharted because they do not in fact exist at all; except, that is, in the magic lantern pictures of my mind where they are just a simple shadow-play of death, which someday, and far too soon, will have us all freely sailing there.
The last half of the book focuses more on Napoleon’s experiences in Vietnam and specifically on a single tragic incident that we see from a couple of different angles, yet always from Napoleon’s point of view—first as a memory and then a testimony. Here, the problem of individual memory comes up against the way we try to view history, as well as the way we try to form moral and legal judgments. The pages of testimony about the incident demonstrate how difficult it is to form a clear chain of events. In the chaos of war, how can one be expected to recall who exactly said what and when. How, in fact, can we expect to do so in the chaos of life?