‘The Sentimentalists’ by Johanna Skibsrud

This Giller Prize 2010 winner connects the flooding of an Ontario town, the Vietnam War, a trailer in North Dakota, and an unfinished boat in Maine. There are many references to the movie Casablanca and many direct quotes from it including the title of the book. It is about the unreliability of memory and how things which lie just below the surface can affect us.

Reluctantly I must say that this book was a struggle for me to finish, and I never felt like I connected with it much.

The author is a poet and her prose has a style as elusive and vague as the hidden town beneath the water.  Maybe that was her point. Her sentences are run on and her meaning unclear, illustrated in this excerpt:
“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.”

A common frustration is how literary novels often have low readability. Out of the five Gillers I’ve read in the last 10 years, I’ve really only enjoyed two of them. Controversy over  literary awards is not a new thing. The Orange Prize (awarded only to women) was begun as a reaction to an all male shortlist for the Man Booker Prize one year. And the Whitbread/Costa award chooses books with high literary merit but also “works that are enjoyable reading and whose aim is to convey the enjoyment of reading to the widest possible audience”. Hear, hear!!

Most of us prefer books that draw us in somehow, either because of characters, plot, setting, eloquence, articulation, or because of a skillful turn of phrase. That is readability. So who is picking the literary award winners? Perhaps others in literary circles who “get” what the author is doing. One cynical reviewer said: the “Giller might say more about the people who made up the jury this year than it does about the book itself.” I want to like award winners, that is probably why I keep reading them. They are important, they make the news, and they have beautiful covers, but often remind me of the cod liver oil my mother used to give me because she thought it was good for me.

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