From Elaine Kalman Naves: Peter Behrens' The O’Briens
31 May 2011
Novelist Peter Behrens

Review of The O’Briens, by Peter Behrens. Anansi, 552 pp, $32.95.

When The Law of Dreams, Peter Behrens’s brilliant historical novel of the Irish Famine, won the Governor-General’s prize for fiction in 2006, Canadian readers could be forgiven for asking “Peter Who?” Then 52, Behrens appeared to have sprung out of nowhere. In fact he was born and educated in Montreal, had been repeatedly anthologized in Best-Canadian-Stories compilations in the 1970s, and in 1986 published a fine story collection called Night Driving. Dividing his time between Maine and Los Angeles, Behrens made his living writing screenplays, but his Canadian sensibilities remained strong.

Behrens’s epic saga of the survival of Fergus O’Brien--a boy cut loose from his moorings by the Great Hunger who winds up on a coffin ship to Montreal—was at least in part inspired by his own family past. That it captured the imagination not only of a Canadian but also of an international audience (The Law of Dreams was translated into eight languages) was a testament to both Behrens’s talent and the power inherent in the tragic yet ultimately redemptive tale of a demoralized and deracinated people.

Huge expectations are raised when a sequel appears in the wake of a grand debut. The O’Briens, a stand-alone follow-up to The Law of Dreams dramatizing the story of Fergus O’Brien’s descendants, will inevitably be compared to The Law of Dreams. If anything, it has an even greater scope. The O’Briens spans a historical sweep from 1887 to 1960 and a geographic reach from the Atlantic to Pacific. Members of the eponymous family are so bicultural that their conversation often and readily slips from English to French. It’s difficult not to read into the author’s intent the desire to pen “a” if not “the” great Canadian novel.

The O’Briens begins in Pontiac County, Quebec, in a logging community in the Ottawa Valley. At thirteen, young Joe O’Brien becomes the head of his family when his father—son of Fergus—fails to return from South Africa after fighting in the Boer War. Joe’s mother Ellenora wastes away upon making an unfortunate second marriage: the new stepfather, Mick Heaney, is a wild fiddler and ne’er-do-well who abuses Joe’s two younger sisters. Joe—already an entrepreneur and precocious boss of a timber gang—wreaks vigilante justice upon Mick, but will forever be haunted at critical moments of his life by “the caw of a fiddle.”

Tough, determined, yet also pitifully vulnerable, Joe yearns to make good for himself and his siblings. At the very moment when he beats Mick to a pulp, he recognizes that he must find a woman “who was a better, finer person than he was, and win her somehow, make himself live up to her beauty and ideals and protect her and the family they would make together. He’d spend his love on her and their children, be profligate with love, and she would teach him all sorts of fine, delicate, harmonious things.”

By the time he meets Iseult Wilkins, a young American woman of independent mind and strong social conscience, Joe is well on his way to being a self-made man: his business now the construction of railroads in British Columbia. In Iseult, who down the road will become a serious hobby photographer as well as a tireless volunteer worker in Montreal’s slums, he creates a sympathetic and credible heroine. The romance between them unfolds in a deeply satisfying way. Behrens knows how to get into a woman’s head, heart, and very womb convincingly. He handles a sudden miscarriage, for instance, with both graphic realism and great sensitivity: “she lay feeling like a package with something smashed and broken inside.”

Yet as accomplished as the writing often is and as rich and varied the material, The O’Briens falls short of greatness. As Behrens moves his narrative forward to include later generations against the background of two World Wars, Prohibition, the Depression, and the post-War era, he sacrifices character development to the altar of historical breadth. While his cinematic approach certainly gives an excellent sense of period background—the depictions of Montreal* in particular are often wonderful--in the second half of the book characters become cardboard cut-outs representing trends and events, rather than organically realized personalities. There are detailed descriptions of clothes, a great many lit cigarettes, and rivers of downed manhattans. At the end I still cared enough about Joe and Iseult to be glad that despite the many tensions between them, they weathered the storms of marriage into old age. I couldn’t, however, muster much enthusiasm for their children: they seemed like so many puppets manipulated by their creator to act out an overdetermined history lesson.

*An excerpt from The O’Briens:

“He got up, went downstairs. The servants had retired and the rooms were dark, moonlight slanting in. The front door was locked and bolted. Peering out through leaded windows in the downstairs drawing room, he saw the air humming blue with frost and moonlight. The window glass was cold to the touch. Arctic air had dropped over Montreal in the past couple of hours, the normal pattern after a January thaw, the North reasserting itself. There were wolves in the outer suburbs when the rivers froze.”  [The O’Briens, p. 302.]

By way of comparison:

“The headlights cascading down Côte des Neiges were like two rivers of light and it was so cold the whole north seemed to be breathing quietly into my face. This air had come down from the empty far north of spruce and frozen lakes where there were no people, it had come down from the germless, sinless land. … I could not help enjoying … [days like this], for they reminded me of my youth and of the time before the glaciers began to melt.” [Hugh MacLennan, The Watch That Ends the Night, p. 23.]

Elaine Kalman Naves
Photo: Archie Fineberg.

Elaine Kalman Naves is the award-winning author of Journey to Vaja; Shoshanna’s Story; Putting Down Roots; Robert Weaver: The Godfather of Canadian Literature; The Writers of Montreal; and, with Bryan Demchinsky, Storied Streets: Montreal in the Literary Imagination. Her radio documentary about the life of the photographer William Notman will air on CBC Ideas in the fall.

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