Best of Fall #7: Johanna Skibsrud’s second book is packed with gunshots, ill-timed vacations and terror at the circus
When Johanna Skibsrud snagged last year’s Giller Prize for The Sentimentalists, she edged out, among others, a previous Giller winner (David Bergen) and a scion of CanLit royalty (Alexander MacLeod). She’s young—only 31 years old. She’s a first-time novelist. And, of course, there was that minor kerfuffle surrounding the book’s small-press origins and limited availability. But in every other way Skibsrud resembles a major Canadian writer, the kind whose books are stickered by Heather and canonized on university syllabi. Her prose is as taut as Alice Munro’s, her plots as spare as Mavis Gallant’s. Her characters have startlingly vivid inner lives. For instance, The Sentimentalists’ Napoleon is a drunkard who admits to his estranged daughter how he’s plagued by devastating Vietnam War memories of burning villages and fallen comrades.
Skibsrud’s new book, This Will Be Difficult to Explain, is a collection of nine short stories she wrote around the same time as her novel—it’s just as assured, and it has the same emotional punch. The stories unfold at a deceptive, leisurely pace, each climaxing on a brief, electric instant—a young woman discovers the disturbing truth about the retired circus worker she has befriended; a gunshot in the night shatters the lives of a brother and sister; a newspaper interview with the town’s oldest citizen takes an alarming, morbid turn.
The author found her inspiration in fleeting anecdotes from friends and family, sparks of narrative that call out for further exploration. The settings—French resorts and Japanese museums and sleepy Midwestern towns—are notably not Canadian, perhaps a sign that it’s no longer necessary for new writers to establish their patriotic bona fides. And that’s okay: the interior landscapes of her characters are often far more vibrant than the known world will ever be.
This Will Be Difficult to Explain
In stores Sept. 24