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A strong follow-up
on September 28, 2011
In the end, as in the beginning, it's about family.
Peter Behrens' first novel, The Law of Dreams, centered on the fierce attempt of a young, nineteenth-century Irishman to survive in a desperate world of famine and exploitation after his family had been violently erased from the narrow patch of earth that was his home. The key to that survival was to keep moving, from Ireland, to England, and on to North America, in the hope of constructing a new life. In this second novel, The O'Briens, Behrens examines what it means to construct a life, not just for a newcomer in a new land, but for anyone.
Behrens' other great subject, besides family, is place. We first encounter Joe O'Brien and his younger brothers and sisters, descendants of the hero of Behrens' previous book, in the early twentieth century, coming of age in Pontiac County, in western Quebec. It's hard to imagine the light of the modern world ever breaking in on this darkly wooded, isolated landscape. The siblings, each in his or her way shaped by that environment, leave and begin to disperse, seeking to make of their lives whatever talent and opportunity might allow them.
In time, we follow Joe from the evanescent, ghostly canals of the freshly built tracts of Venice, California, where he meets his wife-to-be, Iseult, to the harsh terrain of central and western Canada, where he establishes the basis for his fortune by contracting for the laying of railroad track across the mountains. It is also here that he and Iseult begin their family. As that family grows, the next phases of the story play out from Santa Barbara to Kennebunk to Montreal. History, place, and event are all densely and exquisitely evoked, from the early twentieth century to World War 2 and beyond.
Through it all runs the attempt of the men and women of this large and varied family to come to terms with themselves and their interconnections, a task that Behrens shows doesn't always-- perhaps can't ever-- lead to complete success, above all in relation to the mysteries that envelope that most intimate of connections, marriage. There are things we can't know about ourselves, or about those to whom we're attached by blood and love. Behrens doesn't just uncover the universal revelations, betrayals, tragedies, and small triumphs that mark most lives; he also manages to place them within the everyday particularities of time and place.
These individuals and their world are movingly imagined and described. The O'Briens is a sweeping, emotionally engaging read that begins, and ends, where the richest and most honest stories generally do-- in the open-ended struggle to know and define ourselves amid the places and people we daily affect and to which we're inescapably bound.