Early in Johanna Skibsrud’s new novel, The Sentimentalists, the reader realizes things may not be exactly as they seem. Driving north with her sister and her father, who is moving from his home in Fargo to live with his friend Henry in rural Ontario, the narrator says “I imagined the different ways I might recount [the trip’s] events, even as they occurred.” It is here that the reader stops trusting, or trusting completely, in the possibility that things are ever committed objectively to memory, or that they might be retold objectively either. Everything that follows in the novel comes with this small disclaimer attached, creating something of a subtly hazy feeling in the work. A feeling that, when you think about it, is the one associated with real life memory as well.
In this way, the first half of The Sentimentalists meanders along, details revealed in between musings, memories, and beautifully-crafted images. This type of writing is enjoyable to read – it allows the reader to move slowly through a text, to soak up the imagery and think through the metaphors, not having to rush to keep up with the pace. The reader learns that the narrator’s father, Napoleon, is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and that Henry is the father of Napoleon’s friend Owen, who was killed in action in Vietnam. Events in the narrator’s life lead her to retreat to the government-built house Napoleon and Henry share – a house that sits on the edge of a lake that covers the remnants of an old town, flooded in the ‘50s by a hydro-electric dam. It is here that the narrator begins to sift through her father’s past and her own, and to struggle with their implications.
Further blurring the line between fact and fabrication is the author’s addition of an autobiographical element: Skibsrud’s own father fought in Vietnam and his true testimony about Operation Liberty II, in which he witnessed a higher-ranking soldier murder a civilian woman, was incorporated into the book. But Skibsrud has said that the work is “not my father’s story, but my own. And it is not a true story. At its root, though, are two true things. One is my father’s testimony following Operation Liberty II in 1967…. The other is the feeling I got floating over the buried towns of Flagstaff Lake: a feeling of the way that everything exists in layers, that nothing disappears; it just gets hidden sometimes.”
This theory of memory and being that Skibsrud continues to develop in her novel is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Every so often she will unwrap another small strand of thought – about “the false presumption that a thing could, quite simply, be forgot,” or that there is “a ghost for every moment of a life.” And though these reflections are necessarily introspective and pondering in nature, they never feel heavy-handed, and they never keep the book from looking outward as well as inward.
In fact, the dissection of memory allows the novel to engage in a critique of war and the way we remember war. Napoleon wonders, for example, while he watches his captain hit a woman with the butt of his gun, whether the captain’s name was, like the other platoon members’, affixed to the gun with red tape. Or, alternately, “Might that be a privilege of rank? An anonymous gun?”
Skibsrud relates the events of Operation Liberty II twice in the book. The first account, Napoleon’s chaotic experience of the operation, Skibsrud narrates in hazy, detached real time. But the second is in fact an epilogue containing the transcript of the hearing at which Skibsrud’s father testified about civilian deaths during the operation, and the narrator’s reaction to this testimony. Reading through the transcript, the events become much clearer; our understanding is deepened. Ultimately, though, we learn that all charges in relation to the operation were dropped by the army, “for lack of real evidence.” So this incident, too, has been covered over and obscured by the layers of time, though it hasn’t fully disappeared.