Fergus, the hero of this historical adventure story, feels compelled to keep moving, so that he can stay "in his life" and the past, the dreams, and the memories of the loved-ones, lost since his childhood, can be held at bay. In an impressive blend of fast moving action yarn, a coming of age story, and historical social commentary, Peter Behrens has created a highly absorbing poor boy's Odyssey, that begins during the Irish potato famine in the mid-eighteen hundreds and, after many twists and turns, eventually leads to the New World (Quebec). Behrens's sense of place is beautifully evoked in poetic language as are Fergus's intimate ruminations, making this an extraordinary achievement for a first-time novelist. THE LAW OF DREAMS, deservedly, won the prestigious Governor General Award in 2006.
Only son of a family of poor subtenants - mountain people - eking a living in County Clare, Fergus O'Brien, has been left an orphan and fugitive after his family died of a combination of starvation and typhoid. The wealthy tenant farmer, reasonable until the potato blight hits his own fields, pressurized by the absentee landlord to evict the mountain people from his land, sends Fergus off to a workhouse in the nearest town...
From there the journey begins, vividly portrayed by Behrens in all its facets. Sixteen year-old Fergus joins one of the violent roaming child gangs (bog boys), falls seriously in love, escapes by his skin, hits the road again, alone. His growing suspicion and skill to avoid danger and arrest keep him alive. He makes friends, loses them, finds temporary shelter and moves along the road again... The author effortlessly carries the reader with him for the ride. In the hands of a lesser talented writer, the story could become too melodramatic, repetitive or tedious, not so here. His characters, intricately drawn, literally jump off the page, the human struggle for survival is realistically conveyed in all its colours.
Behrens easily fuses action moments with Fergus' sense of dreaming, expressed in brief outbursts of inner dialog. Early on, he muses: "He had always felt deficient here [on the farm]. He had tried to convincing himself he did not but why else the constant self-argument, the tingle of thoughts inside his head rising up like doves off the perch, fluttering and billing, all confusion?"
Having lived his young life on the land and away from cities, his arrival in Liverpool is a revelation: a city of stone. Here also, through Fergus's eyes, Behrens poetic language captures the essence of what he sees. "Streets and squares of Liverpool were organized, fantastic monsters. Building after building, corners, edges, strict angles - he could never have imagined anything so sharply arranged. The limited sky smoldered and slowly lit, providing some depth to the side streets of houses shouldering together. [...] Everything moves quickly here... men carrying grapple hooks, swinging buckets of nails. You could smell the ferocity on the street. - What is Liverpool? A city? A world?"
Yet, an inner drive pushes him on:
"Drop the past. Drop it.
You can't eat it can you.
The old world's crushed.
Life burns hot".
Peter Behrens extensive research into the background and context of the Irish Famine and the lives of those who like Fergus followed such harrowing journeys, driven by the dreams for a better life across the ocean, was motivated by his own great-grandfather's life, of which he knew very little. While literary fiction at its finest, his novel is precise in its historical detail, rich in realistic and fascinating characters and powerful in its evocation of place and time. Reading THE LAW OF DREAMS one can at times be reminded of the writing of Charles Dickens or Emile Zola in terms of the author's ability for sharp social commentary. Closest in my view, however, another Canadian author's beautiful and moving novel comes to mind: Jane Urquhart's Away
. While both novels take the Irish Famine as a starting point, the two novels take very different routes to have their heroes finally reach Canada. They are in many ways, complementary.
Towards the end, however, Behrens's novel seem to be rushing and introducing convenient twists and less believable characters and events. The novel, unfortunately, loses momentum as Fergus comes closer to the North American coast and his arrival in Quebec is short and least convincing. Which leads me, with hindsight, to deduct 0.5 star. [Friederike Knabe]