Compared to the relative restraint of his 2006 Governor General’s Literary Award–winning first novel, The Law of Dreams, which chronicled, over the course of a year, an Irish emigrant’s attempt to flee to Canada during the Great Famine, Peter Behrens’ follow-up is a sprawling thing that encompasses a whole generation while restlessly ranging between both North American coasts and points in between.
With a larger territory and substantially increased cast of characters comes a dilution of interest, however. The O’Briens may call itself a sequel to The Law of Dreams – its titular clan being the descendants of Fergus, the earlier book’s protagonist – yet it lacks the honed, focused intensity of its predecessor.
The novel begins in late 19th-century rural Quebec, where the five O’Brien children, their parents now dead, are preparing to abandon the family farm for opportunities at home and abroad. Joe, the clan’s eldest child and its natural leader, has the most acute sense of destiny: “He needed risks and danger and lots of room to grow, and that was why he would go out west.”
While visiting his brother in California, Joe meets independent, unconventional Iseult, who also wants to escape the long shadow cast by family, death, and history. Joe and Iseult marry, and the rest of the novel is given over to their story: the devastating loss of their first child, which haunts their union and hangs over the birth of the next four; Joe’s success in the railway business, which establishes him as a member of Montreal’s wealthy Westmount establishment; and the two world wars that claim, respectively, Joe’s brother’s mind and his son’s body.
At the novel’s core is the clash of Iseult and Joe’s oil-and-water personalities: “She was protected, closed; he was fearless and open. She was hard rock made millions of years ago by her family; he was molten, still changing. She was cold, he was warm.” Behrens never tires of offering up examples of how the two figures differ (and those few places in which they overlap), but after a while the Venn-diagram approach to character building starts to feel too reductive.
There is much to admire in Behrens’ forceful, linear style. At the same time, its hard to shake the sense that we’re being borne along, rather than compelled, by the rather predictable narrative, which falls too easily into platitudes about love and war to stand as the epic saga it strives so hard to be.