This is book 2 of my 20booksofsummer22, so I seem to have made a slow start, although I am partway through six more of my 18 remaining books!
The Sentence was selected to read by my small book club, which comprises me, my pals Jo and Sonia (who I’ve known since we met at an NCT group in South London when we were all expecting our first babies 18 years ago), and Emily and Shona, who I met through Jo when we set up book club about 12 years ago, and who are now buddies. We’re not a typical book club I think, as we’re mainly there for food, drink and chat, though we probably give a discussion of books and the picking of new books an hour of our evening…
This was my first read by the much-garlanded Louise Erdrich, a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and The Sentence was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize. It takes in important contemporary issues – the impact of the George Floyd murder, COVID – as well Native American history and folklore.
The overall premise of the novel sounded really intriguing. In her thirties, heroine Tookie made a mistake that landed her a long spell in prison, but is apparently now fully rehabilitated, married to an ex-cop and working in an independent Minneapolis bookshop. But, when the shop’s ‘most annoying customer’, Flora, drops dead and soon afterwards proceeds to haunt the store, Tookie has a mystery to unravel.
The trouble is, I didn’t care. I quite like a spooky book, but the haunting felt a bit silly for the most part. It certainly wasn’t the book I expected from the opening chapter, when Tookie is feckless, high, drunk and prone to hilariously awful mishaps. As a responsible member of the community the character was suddenly drained of all of appeal for me. The digressive style didn’t reel me in either, and the novel felt a bit under-edited and thrown together, like a few other examples of the new brand of ‘pandemic lit’ (Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat is another).
In fact, my favourite thing about this book is its secondary discussion of books and authors. Tookie mentions books she’s read, and recommends books to others. The Sentence even contains a sort of appendix, with lists of books in the back: a list of perfect, short novels (The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson…), a list of ‘sublime books’ (Exhalation by Ted Chiang, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro…), books on indigenous lives, and a ‘ghost-managing book list’.
I have had a secondhand copy of Erdrich’s Beet Queen lurking on my tbr shelves for years, and this book has slightly put me off ever reading it.