The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

This was, somehow, the Giller Prize winner for 2010.

In the first half of this book, we learn, very slowly, thanks to five million commas, that Napoleon’s best friend for the last twenty years is Henry – and that Henry is the father of Owen whom Napoleon served with during the Vietnam War. Napoleon’s life, and this book, is full of Henry – Napoleon tracked him down shortly after the war and ever since, he and his daughters have spent every summer at Henry’s house. Napoleon even moves in with Henry. And so, finally, in the second half of the book, we hear Napoleon’s story about what happened in Vietnam with Owen.

But if you thought that story would explain why Napoleon and Henry are best friends, you’d be wrong. If you thought that story would tell what happened to Owen in Vietnam, you’d be wrong. If you thought that story and the resulting second half of the book would actually make sense, you’d be wrong.

And if you somehow steer your way through the ocean of commas that drowns this book and make your way to the end, the final paragraph will tell you that this book, and Napoleon’s life, is not about the Vietnam War, it’s actually about a goddamn boat.



Haunted by the vivid horrors of the Vietnam War, exhausted from years spent battling his memories, Napoleon Haskell leaves his North Dakota trailer and moves to Canada.

He retreats to a small Ontario town where Henry, the father of his fallen Vietnam comrade, has a home on the shore of a manmade lake. Under the water is the wreckage of what was once the town – and the home where Henry was raised.

When Napoleon’s daughter arrives, fleeing troubles of her own, she finds her father in the twilight of his life, and rapidly slipping into senility. With love and insatiable curiosity, she devotes herself to learning the truth about his life; and through the fog, Napoleon’s past begins to emerge.