Peter Behrens is a Montreal-bred writer of Irish descent who has taught in California and currently divides his time between Maine and Texas. In his fiction, this roving biography finds expression in acute attention to the exigencies of human migration, the permeability of borders, and the mutability of national identity. Behrens’s captivating debut novel, The Law of Dreams, which won a 2006 Governor General’s Literary Award, tracked protagonist Fergus O’Brien’s adventurous, mid-19th-century journey from famine-wracked Ireland to England and, finally, North America. The O’Briens, a sequel of sorts, told the story of Fergus’s descendants as they crisscrossed the North American continent, routinely hopping back and forth across the 49th parallel.
While the O’Brien family does not feature in Behrens’s eventful, sometimes entrancing, but ultimately imperfect third novel, the thematic emphasis of the earlier books remains. If anything, the sense of dislocation is amplified. Spanning a good portion of the 20th century, with particular attention paid to the Nazis’ rise to power, Carry Me moves from the Isle of Wight in the English Channel to Ireland and Germany, and, eventually, Texas. “Birthplaces, nationality – such details have consequence in this story,” says the book’s narrator, Billy Lange. This is putting it mildly.
Born Hermann Lange on the Isle of Wight in 1909, he is persuaded as a young boy during the First World War to change his name to Billy in the hope of being spared schoolyard taunts. Billy’s father, Buck, has been incarcerated by British authorities as a suspected German sympathizer or even spy. Buck, the son of a sea captain and a sailor himself, is a German citizen by virtue of having been born in the master’s cabin of his German father’s ship while it was stationed off the coast of California, but is otherwise essentially English.
When the family’s wartime isolation becomes too difficult to bear, Billy and his mother move to Ireland, home to Billy’s maternal and paternal grandmothers. At the end of the war, the family migrates to the countryside near Frankfurt where Buck finds employment as a breeder of race horses for his longtime patron, Hermann von Weinbrenner, a wealthy Jewish baron who is also Billy’s godfather and namesake.
All of this is backdrop to the narrative’s central focus on the relationship between Billy and the baron’s daughter, Karin. “Her story is not mine, but sometimes her story feels like the armature my life has wound itself around,” explains Billy of a connection forged in childhood over a shared fondness for the popular Wild West stories of German author Karl May. Billy, who finishes his education in Germany before securing employment as a translator with chemical industry behemoth IG Farben, finds that his love for Karin, while not quite unrequited, is returned with something more like sisterly affection than unbridled passion. Eventually, the two become lovers. They execute a plan to flee Nazi Germany for the Llano Estacado of the American southwest, but Karin’s commitment to the scheme – and to Billy or anything else – never seems firmly grounded.
The narrative, presented as a reconstruction of past events, skips back and forth in time. Behrens also adds a documentary element by citing a variety of invented archival estate sources held by McGill University, including letters, telegrams, and diary entries.
The teasing out of the story, which runs to nearly 450 pages, is not entirely successful. The first half, burdened by the weight of exposition, is light on drama and slow to get going. In the second half, however, the threads between past and present tighten. Interest in the fate of the characters is heightened. An early speech by Hitler, the burning of the Reichstag, and the subsequent persecution of Germany’s Jewish population are brought into sharp, suspenseful focus as Billy’s presence in an increasingly racialized and nationalistic milieu becomes more and more untenable. In a pointed conversation with a German screenwriter, Billy’s identity is challenged: “Lange is a good German name, but then you are not really a German are you?” Billy’s response – “Ich bin ich” (I am who I am) – doesn’t satisfy the pro-Nazi screenwriter. “A man these days ought to be able to explain exactly who he is and what he’s about,” she says. For Billy, this is a challenge in more ways that one.
Carry Me is an unevenly paced novel that misses the page-turning pull of Behrens’s earlier efforts. The characters, perhaps befitting the impermanence of their national identities, remain elusive. Their motivations – even those of Billy and, especially, Karin – are opaque. And the central romance meant to tie everything together too often comes across as bloodless. These weaknesses detract from the novel’s otherwise impressive use of the past as a mirror to the world we live in now, when the consequences of migration and statelessness are as evident as ever.