Johanna Skibsrud blasted onto the literary stage with The Sentimentalists, which won the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her follow-up, a collection of short stories, is likely to provide ammunition to those who questioned the merits of that win.
This Will Be Difficult to Explain has nine stories, four of which are linked. Those four concern Martha, who goes to Paris as a young adult, at a time when it was cheap to live there, and decides to stay. Martha initially works as a companion to a blind woman, but then she meets Charlie, “and her real life began.” Many years later, one of Martha’s friends, Fay, leaves her husband and goes to stay with Martha.
While linked stories can be engaging, these feel more like bits of an unfinished novel and, overall, the stories in this collection are more like anecdotes than fully formed narratives. Skibsrud makes things happen in her stories, but the flat delivery and largely conventional prose gives the impression that nothing happens.
The title story, about a fractured family, has a complicated timeline. What is difficult for the characters in the story to explain concerns a dead dog; the violence is disturbing and gratuitous. Other stories also feature broken families. In “The Limit,” a man picks up his 13-year-old daughter for a visit and, in his clumsy attempt to connect with her after a separation of several months, asks if she wants to drive. If Skibsrud had stuck to the interaction between father and daughter, the story would have had a better chance, but she flashes back to the father’s childhood when he went hunting for escaped buffalo on a neighbouring farm. Evidently, there’s supposed to be a connection between the father’s youth and his daughter’s, but this connection is never realized.
This collection has all the earmarks of a book rushed into print. And that’s too bad.