The Sentimentalists. Wendy Skibsrud.

Skibsrud, Wendy. The Sentimentalists. Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver and Toronto. F; 2/11.

Once again, I came pretty close to quitting this book halfway through. The problem is a dense, demanding diction. It’s hard to tell whether this is a literary device or just the detailed account of a serious mind doggedly and honestly tracking its linear way through a tortuous but very important journey of mental rock-climbing during which it encounters and has to deal with alternating real-world plot elements and big metaphorical abstractions which typically are very important to the appreciation of the novel and are served up roughly mixed together like blueberries and sour cream in a muffin recipe. Get the idea?

The main plot event takes place in Viet Nam in 1967. But only way past the middle of the book does it dawn on us (on me anyway) that this event is the execution of a village of civilians by American soldiers. The sentimentalists including the narrator’s father are present (rendered magnificently as dead-on realistic marijuana-stoned adolescent soldiers), and one of them possibly tries unsuccessfully to stop the killing, but the first time we encounter this event it is in the father’s recollection with insufficient detail to guess what’s going on, like the climax of a thriller movie with dialogue you can’t hear properly taking place in 85 percent darkness. Somebody thinks obscurity equals intrigue.

We have to wait until well into the epilogue (assuming we bother to read it) to understand what happened, to reflect that we can’t ever quite understand what happened, to get that the old man (now dead)’s alcoholism is the result of his PTSD, to feel emotional about the fact that although ruined he did his best to make and keep a promise to his adored wife so he is in his way wonderful, sentimental (to pull the fundamental metaphor together) and that this is the way life is. Not to be ironic here: the thing turns out to be quite beautiful, and if you stick it out to the end you can see why it won the prize. But you sure have to chew through a lot of gristle to get to the meat. Life’s like that… 8.3/6.2

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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