The annual Scotiabank Giller Prize is the highest honour bestowed upon Canadian fiction writers. It comes with a hefty monetary prize for the winner, not to mention the positive press that translates into extensive book sales. Those authors who have been shortlisted for the prize also reap the benefits of exposure; each one gets a spotlight during the televised awards ceremony in November, just in time for people to start thinking about Christmas gifts.
The most recent winner is Johanna Skibsrud, author of The Sentimentalists. At 30, she is the youngest to win the prize, and although her novel offers up visceral moments and some beautifully composed passages, her work is reminiscent of a burgeoning Margaret Atwood. Sure, this is an immense compliment in itself, but Atwood’s earlier works lacked her current brilliance and popularity. The thematic complexity and character development of Atwood’s later novels such as Alias Grace (Giller winner in 1996) have developed out of years of practising the craft.
Like Atwood’s first novel Surfacing, The Sentimentalists seems to lack an anchor at times. The plot floats in and out of the past and present, and the language that Skibsrud employs is occasionally inaccessible to the average reader because of her overuse of figurative language. Skibsrud skips from one anecdote to the next, without always qualifying who the pronoun “he” is referring to, making the story somewhat hard to follow.
The most striking part of the novel occurs when the narrator’s father Napoleon finally opens up about his experiences in Vietnam in 1967. Here, Skibsrud demonstrates her talent: the writing is vivid, the story intriguing, and the dialogue authentic. She creates suspense by revealing only pieces of Napoleon’s tale, and as the novel comes to a close, the reader is hungry to learn more about it. However, this sub-plot is underdeveloped, and further exploration by the author would help highlight the other story lines and themes in the novel.
Despite her ability to capture the quintessential Canadian ‘cabin-by-the-lake’ experience, and her talent to illustrate the nuances of human relationships, Skibsrud still has a long way to come. This is her first novel after all. Just as Atwood and hundreds of other novelists who have come before her, I have no doubt that Skibsrud’s craft will develop over time into a force to be reckoned with. For now however, the Giller prize seems somewhat premature.
Other Giller Prize winners worth reading:
and the 1997 winner by Mordecai Richler: