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A tearful Johanna Skibsrud shows off her Giller Prize trophy. ((Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press))

Montreal-based writer and poet Johanna Skibsrud has won the $50,000 Giller Prize for The Sentimentalists, her first novel.

The prize was awarded Tuesday night by founder Jack Rabinovitch at a glitzy Toronto gala.

Skibsrud's novel deals with complexities of the father-daughter relationship.

"The Sentimentalists charts the painful search by a dutiful daughter to learn — and more importantly, to learn to understand — the multi-layered truth which lies at the moral core of her dying father's life," the Giller jury wrote in its citation.

"Something happened to Napoleon Haskell during his tour of duty in Vietnam that changed his life and haunted the rest of his days. At the behest of his daughters, he moves from a trailer in North Dakota to a small lakeside town in Ontario, where his family can only watch as his past slips away in a descending fog of senility. The writing here is trip-wire taut as the exploration of guilt, family and duty unfolds."

The jury was made up of CBC broadcaster Michael Enright and novelists Claire Messud and Ali Smith.

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The Sentimentalists is a debut novel by Johanna Skibsrud. ((Gaspereau Press/Canadian Press))

Skibsrud, 30, said she got the idea for the setting from Flagstaff Lake, which covers four now-underwater townships in northern Maine, where she once worked for a summer.

One of the sparks of the story was autobiographical — her own father began to speak to her in 2003 about his own experiences in the Vietnam War and she found herself incorporating a war story in the work.

The book is an examination of the resonance of memory and "how everything we do now is always affected by the past," she said.

In her acceptance speech, a tearful Skibsrud thanked among others her late father "for sharing his stories with me.

"I can't imagine how proud he would've been," she said.

Only 800 copies of The Sentimentalists were originally printed by small publishing house Gaspereau Press in the first run. The book's inclusion among the Giller Prize finalists forced the small five-person operation to print about 1,000 copies a week in an attempt to keep up with demand.

A Giller win usually leads to an explosion in sales, so the small press may face a struggle in the weeks ahead.

Skibsrud's first poetry collection, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys, was published in 2008 by Gaspereau Press and was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award. Originally from Scotsburn, N.S., she now lives in Montreal.

Each of the finalists for the award wins $5,000. They are:

  • David Bergen of Winnipeg for The Matter with Morris.
  • Sarah Selecky of Toronto, for This Cake is for the Party.
  • Alexander MacLeod of Dartmouth, N.S., for Light Lifting.
  • Kathleen Winter of Montreal for Annabel.