Peter Behrens’s firstnovel, “The Law of Dreams,” was published in 2006 to overwhelming critical acclaim and received the Governor General’s Literary Award in Canada. Loosely based on the author’s family history, the novel described Fergus O’Brien’s emigration from famine Ireland in 1847 and his efforts to eke out a living in the New World. With its literary antecedents in such texts as Liam O’Flaherty’s “Famine,” “The Law of Dreams” was a book about survival in a hostile environment.
Behrens’s latest novel, “The O’Briens,” picks up with Joe, grandson of Fergus, in late 19th-century Canada. The book’s opening section, “Ashling” (from the Irish word for a vision), finds Joe, his four siblings and their ailing mother stuck in the backwoods of Quebec’s Pontiac County. Joe’s father, in true O’Brien fashion, is off fighting in the Boer War. “There was a restless instinct in the family,” Behrens writes, “an appetite for geography and change.”
When Joe’s mother gets news that her husband has been killed, Joe begins to sell firewood to make ends meet. Then, in the middle of it all, his mother receives a marriage proposal from a man who molests his little sisters. Joe, just 15, decides to take the law into his own hands and get his siblings out of Pontiac County while he goes off to seek his fame and fortune.
And so begins the saga that is “The O’Briens.” Moving with ease between Canada and California from 1880 to 1960, Behrens details the vicissitudes of the O’Briens as children and then grandchildren appear on the scene. Joe meets his future wife on a visit to see his brother Grattan in California and ends up making some serious money running train lines through the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia. Both his sisters become nuns; one brother becomes a Jesuit; Grattan becomes a captain in the Royal Flying Corps who receives a commendation from the king of England. (He later supports Sinn Fein and decides, emphatically, that the Brits are the pits.)
As befits a saga so ambitious in design, there is an able mixture of agony and ecstasy throughout. Time and time again, Behrens proves himself a first-rate seanchaí, the Irish term for a storyteller, by bringing the O’Brien clan to life on the page. En route, he fashions a topographically capacious narrative that relishes the scents of Santa Barbara, the pastoral beauty of the Ojai Valley and the tidal mantras of coastal Maine.
But it is in Montreal that things come together in language as smart as it is cinematic. None of which should surprise us, of course, considering that Behrens honed his craft working on screenplays in California. He, like the Irish novelist Brian Moore, who also lived in Montreal and worked as a screenwriter, does some of his best work whenever he documents the Lebenswelt of his favorite city.
“The O’Briens” is a remarkable miniseries in the offing, and yet for all its episodic exactness and designer lines, perhaps because of these scriptlike qualities, the novel lacks some of the visceral heft and raw survival instinct that helped put Behrens on the map with “The Law of Dreams.” As such, “The O’Briens” leaves us wanting more, waiting for the kind of voice that Behrens takes from Irish poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill as his book’s epigraph:
Thainig an gala,
sheid se go laidir,
chuala do ghuth
ag glaoch orm sa toirneach.
The storm came,
blew with force,
I heard your voice
calling me through thunder.
McElroy teaches in the University Writing Program at the University of California at Davis.
By Peter Behrens
384 pp. $25.95