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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sentence

Louise Erdrich

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To purchase The Sentence

Title: The Sentence
Author: Louise Erdrich
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 381 pages
Availability: The Sentence - US
The Sentence - UK
The Sentence - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable bookish novel of our recent times

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B 8/11/2021 Mary Sollosi
Financial Times C 18/1/2022 Jon Day
The Guardian . 22/1/2022 Erica Wagner
Literary Review . 2/2022 Anna Aslanyan
The NY Times . 2/11/2021 Molly Young
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/11/2021 Malcolm Jones
TLS . 17/12/2021 Dinah Birch
The Washington Post A 9/11/2021 Ron Charles

  From the Reviews:
  • "Tookie's voice is genuine and humorous, her perspective rich with history, literacy, and quietly simmering fury. Erdrich's fictional account of Tookie's pandemic experience, as singular and as universal as anyone's, resonates with strange and familiar detail (...) but doesn't blend consistently with her tale of the phantom Flora." - Mary Sollosi, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Its shortcomings are mainly the result of its scattergun lack of focus -- you feel it simply doesn’t know what kind of a book it wants to be. But it also shows just how difficult it is for art to respond to the world in real time. (...) What I found more annoying was the reverential and slightly puritanical defence of literature and bookshops which runs throughout the novel. (...) There’s a great deal of literary name-checking too. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel which mentions so many living writers (all approvingly). (...) The biggest problem with The Sentence is that it’s a ghost story that is not in the least bit scary. (...) There may be several good novels buried somewhere in The Sentence, but all of them are still struggling to get out." - Jon Day, Financial Times

  • "The joy of Erdrich’s novels lies in the way her characters live so richly, and are as present to the reader as our own friends and relatives are." - Erica Wagner, The Guardian

  • "(A) bewitching novel that begins with a crime that would seem to defy “relatability” but becomes a practical metaphor for whatever moral felonies lurk unresolved in your guilty heart. (...) As its title suggests, The Sentence is an incredibly bookish book. The layers of bookishness are dizzying: from the micro (one employee’s name is Pen) to the macro (the central mystery: Was Flora killed by a book?). This is a novel obsessed with the operations of running an independent bookstore: dealing with publishers, playing the Tetris game that is shelf space, packaging mail orders." - Molly Young, The New York Times

  • "More than anything, Tookie craves normal. Normal is not her default. (...) The Sentence covers a lot of ground, from ghosts to the joys and trials of bookselling to the lives of Native Americans and inmates doing hard time. And that’s just the first half of the story, before the pandemic, before George Floyd. The novel gets a little baggy after a while, as Erdrich struggles to juggle multiple plotlines. But the virtues here so outweigh the flaws that to complain seems almost like ingratitude." - Malcolm Jones, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The story flickers between dissonant worlds – there is down-to-earth realism and supernatural recalcitrance; brutality and compassion; long-buried histories and contemporary heartbreak. (...) The collective suffering of the pandemic shadows her narrative, confined to no single country, race or history." - Dinah Birch, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The coronavirus pandemic is still raging away and God knows we’ll be reading novels about it for years, but Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence may be the best one we ever get. Neither a grim rehashing of the lockdown nor an apocalyptic exaggeration of the virus, her book offers the kind of fresh reflection only time can facilitate, and yet it’s so current the ink feels wet. (...) Be prepared: The Sentence is that rare novel about the life-transforming effect of literature that arrives with its own syllabus. (...) The great arc of these first 30 pages (...) could have provided all the material needed for a whole novel, but Erdrich has something else in mind for The Sentence: This is a ghost story -- though not like any I’ve read before. The novel’s ectoplasm hovers between the realms of historical horror and cultural comedy." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sentence is narrated by Tookie -- a nickname that's stuck, with her using it on even her identifying papers, to the extent that it's crowded out her real name, one that she's repressed:

     'I can't remember. Maybe I saw it on some official forms a few times,' I said. 'But do you know, I've blocked it out ? I guess that's weird.'
       Not so weird, given a complicated and difficult childhood -- but it's no surprise that her (real) name comes to play a role in the story. Tookie is strongly defined by identity -- her tribal one and that community she is part of, as well as then her professional one, as, book-obsessed , she comes to work in a bookstore -- and ultimately she comes to some terms with some other, even more fundamental aspects of her identity. She notes early on: "Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters", and, though very book-centered, The Sentence ultimately does focus on experience, and it is the human -- and spiritual (in the sense of ghostly ...) -- connections and interactions she has that are the truly meaningful ones here.
       There are a variety of 'sentences' in The Sentence, but among the most significant is a nearly life-defining legal one meted out, which Tookie recounts at the outset. The death of a friend's boyfriend sets off Tookie's legal problems, as she agreed to be helpful and ... pick up the body. This turns into something that the law sees as outright body-snatching -- and it gets worse, since the crossing of state lines is involved, as well as something more that Tookie was not aware of when she bundled up the corpse. When all is said and done she finds herself sentenced to sixty years.
       Tookie manages in prison, after a fashion; books help a lot (even if at first she isn't allowed access to them); indeed, she finds: "the most important skill I'd gained in prison was how to read with murderous attention". Pretty much out of the blue -- for her -- the sentence is then also commuted, after seven years, and Tookie is free again. She comes to work in a bookstore -- owned by a woman named Louise (and, yes, that clearly is the author, and the bookstore naturally resembles her own) -- which is certainly a good fit, and a good environment for her. She also marries -- Pollux, an old friend but also, back then, the policeman who had arrested her.
       Beyond the usual customers Tookie deals with at the bookstore, there are also some more unusual ones -- notably the very annoying Flora. Among other things:
Our specialty is Native books, of course, her main interest. But here comes the annoying part: she was a stalker -- of all things Indigenous. Maybe stalker is too harsh a word. Let's say instead that she was a very persistent wannabe.
       And then Flora dies -- at least in physical form:
In November 2019, death took one of my most annoying customers. But she did not disappear.
       Flora continues to haunt the bookstore -- and Tookie in particular -- in ghost-form. (As Erdrich puts it, in one of the particularly nice bits of the book: "Five days after Flora died, she was still coming to the bookstore. I'm still not strictly rational. How could I be ? I sell books.")
       So, yes, The Sentence is the story of a haunting -- but it's not too much a ghost-story, with Flora certainly a frequent presence (and continued annoyance), but not so much front and center, most of the time. The date of her death isn't insignificant: November, 2019, close to the present-day -- as The Sentence then also very much becomes a chronicle of these past few years: a virus spreads, upending lives and businesses (though fortunately the bookstore is deemed an essential business, and putters on) and, of course, there is also 25 May 2020, the deadly assault on George Floyd, right there in Minneapolis.
       Tookie's household also grows, with the appearance of Pollux's niece, "inherited" from one of his brothers, Hetta, complete with newborn Jarvis. Tookie and Pollux are a good match, but there are a variety of stresses in the household and beyond -- including then the protests about the George Floyd-killing, as well as the constant fear and then the reality of Covid. Tookie does her best, which is normally pretty good, but she does manage to put her foot in it every now and then; as she notes: "doing the wrong thing in general was my nature".
       Tookie certainly wants to shake her ghost, but, like a book she left behind, Flora seems pretty much unshakeably persistent. Tookie's struggles with her ghost are very much on her mind -- but so is a great deal else; The Sentence is a fairly busy book. For all that, everything still works itself out quite neatly and well enough in the end.
       The Sentence is also a very immediate book -- straight out of our time (at this time), a chronicle of the Covid- and George Floyd-years. Despite the larger events, it also remains localized, to Tookie's world -- and , as such, is also appealingly book-centric. An ideal boostore-worker, Tookie is obsessed with books, and enthusiastic about helping people find the right ones: "I would rescue him with books", she says about one customer, and even if she knows books aren't always the answer, they are certainly her main go-to. So also Erdrich includes a seven-page appendix to The Sentence, a 'Totally Biased List of Tookie's Favorite Books', neatly divided into a variety of categories that cover most of the novel's themes, from a 'Ghost-Managing Book List' to various Indigenous-titles lists to 'Tookie's Pandemic Reading'.
       Tookie's prison experience had certainly helped form her -- specifically regarding books: "There, I had learned to read with a force that resembled insanity", and this great passion for books and reading certainly comes through in The Sentence. But the novel also moves beyond that, especially in its treatment of the different relationships -- always as seen and experienced by well-meaning if sometimes too headstrong Tookie.
       It makes for an enjoyable read, serious but not too heavy. The sincere and somewhat gruff Tookie is a fine guide, and her turbulent life -- and the genuine affection (despite the occasional frustrations) she has for those around her -- make her a fine main figure. The immediacy of The Sentence -- clearly written in the moment, rather than just about it, might not be ideal -- there's something to be said for some distance to events -- but with Tookie fully immersed in the times and circumstances it feels convincing enough. Still, the better parts of the book are mostly those that aren't so (real-life-)event- specific and focused.
       Despite the often serious subject matter, The Sentence is a fairly casual read, Tookie quite amiably and ultimately fairly easily powering through the hardships and bizarreness (especially in the form of that ghost) she faces; Erdrich doesn't let her get too hung up on any single thing for too long (even if certain issues repeatedly come to the fore). The proximity of events (which keep coming) also keeps the book from becoming too reflective -- but also gives it an at times surface-skim-like feel, as much as Erdrich seeks to ground it in Tookie. The love of books -- including a lot of name-dropping of titles -- is a nice touch, very convincingly woven in the story, and should certainly appeal to the avid reader.
       The Sentence is a fine novel of our recent times, with a few more layers to it -- a solid and fairly fast read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 November 2021

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The Sentence: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Louise Erdrich was born in 1954.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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