People often rave about the literary accomplishments of twentysomethings, as if the mere fact that someone so young has written a book is reason to celebrate their greatness. What they often fail to acknowledge is that it's much easier to accomplish something big when you are still too young to realize you can't.
On the flip side, we have Peter Behrens, whose Governor-General's Award-winning debut novel, The Law of Dreams, was published in 2006, when the author was 50. The Law of Dreams was the tale of Fergus O'Brien, who fled the Irish potato famine and came to Montreal in the 1840s. Critics swooned, authors like Jonathan Lethem and Catherine Bush offered blurbs to make a statue blush, and hope sprang anew in the breasts of middle-aged scribblers everywhere.
In his second novel, The O'Briens, Behrens picks up the story of the family at the beginning of the 20th century. There's nary a word of Fergus himself. Starvation, which can be a powerful motivator for characters, to say nothing of their authors, is absent from this second stab. As a result, the stakes are not nearly as high, at least once we are over the initial crises of the overly affectionate priest and the hard-drinking stepfather. Both of these characters cause a pit of dread in the stomach that is effective but also, at this stage in our cultural development, very familiar.
By the time our main characters, Joe and his brother Tom, escape the squalor of their origins, we begin to suspect that things are going to be occasionally happy, mostly sad, but will generally work out okay.
Both story and style are strongest in the first segment of the book, which ends when the brothers flee the North country and split up to seek their fortunes, Tom heading to a seminary and Joe to the big city. After that, the story takes on a laboured quality that prevents it from ever really taking flight. I often had the feeling that the O'Briens knew I was watching them, and they were being careful to say and do all the right things.
The novel spans the breadth of the continent, from California to Nova Scotia, as well as the better part of the 20th century. Behrens takes us through a variety of interesting historical epochs, including the building of Canada's transcontinental railroad, the dawn of the Age of Flight, the First World War, the Depression and The Second World War. The book is impressive in its scope and ambitious in its goals. Behrens's writing is always tight, and some of his descriptions are flat-out jaw-dropping.
But the animal fight for survival is absent. We know what we are supposed to be feeling and when because of the visual cues Behrens, also a screenwriter, gives us: a tiny coffin borne up a mountainside, various men in uniform saying goodbye to their women, a confused old man rowing off into the fog and oblivion. Yet the book feels more chronicle than novel. Behrens attempts to compensate for this by imbuing Joe with a dark side that feels stuck on with Scotch tape. We see no consequence more dire than his wife being angry with him, but even then we're not sure whether she wants to leave him because of his drinking binges or because she has fallen in love with J. Krishnamurti.
Behrens has said that he's gone to great pains to keep his Irishmen from veering into stereotype. High marks from me in that category, although this also means there's really nothing Irish about these people. What we hoped for was an interesting answer to the question of what happens to people made of the same stuff as Fergus when they make it to the New World. Do they expand into new dimensions of Irishness, or something equally engaging? Alas, the answer Behrens gives us is disappointingly obvious: They just become rich Canadians. As it turns out, the journey is a lot more interesting than the destination.
Peter Behrens's family came to Canada in the 1840s on a "coffin ship." This was a name given to ships filled with starving immigrants from Ireland who were fleeing the potato famine, called in Irish an Gorta Mór, "the Great Hunger."
In The Law of Dreams, which won the 2006 Governor-General's Award for fiction, Behrens imagined the journey his great-great-grandfather made to Montreal. In The O'Briens, he continues telling a story that is based in part on the true story of his own family.
Although Behrens's family eventually rose to prominence in Montreal, becoming an important part of the fabric of the city, they were never allowed to forget their humble beginnings. Behrens draws on the stories he heard as a child for the material for his novels.
William Kowalski lives and writes in Nova Scotia.