Behrens, Peter: The O’Briens

Courtesy of House of Anansi Press

Behrens, Peter
The O’Briens
House of Anansi, 2011
Paperback, 514 pages

Review by: Kerry Riley

Peter Behrens came to prominence with the publication of his first novel, The Law of Dreams, which won the Governor General’s Award for fiction in 2006, a year that found me fully occupied with non-literary life issues.  Hence, I am making my acquaintance with his writing rather late in the game through his second novel The O’Briens. 

The O’Briens, as the title implies is an epic family saga, centred around the life of Joe O’Brien, first introduced to the reader as a young boy growing up in Pontiac County, Quebec, in the early 1900’s.  The five O’Brien siblings, of whom Joe, at thirteen, is the eldest, are third generation famine Irish.  There are tales of a quixotic grandfather, a horse trader and buffalo hunter, who periodically left his family to pursue various ventures and who eventually disappeared, his ultimate fate a family mystery.  Quixotic restlessness seems to be part of the O’Brien genome, as Joe’s father Michael also chose to leave his family to volunteer to fight in the Boer War, where he was killed. As Behrens explains,

There was a restless instinct in the family, an appetite for geography and change.

At thirteen, Joe finds himself the de facto head of his family, a burden which might have crushed a less sturdy sensibility but one for which he seems constitutionally suited.  Although his family’s situation teeters on the brink of destitution, from the beginning he displays a talent for entrepreneurship and a fiercely protective sense of family responsibility. Having inherited the Black Irish colouring (a bloodline associated seers and healers) Joe is a strange mix of practicality and intuition.

Joe understood that his father had left his power behind and that he, as eldest son, had inherited it.  He believed this without having to think about it.  The power was nothing supernatural or even extraordinary; it was just a sense of his own inner strength. It gave him self-confidence and boldness. And he wouldn’t squander his power the way his father had; he would use it to protect them all.

With surefooted business acumen and impeccable timing Joe boldly seizes the opportunity to turn experience supplying neighbours with firewood into increasingly large and lucrative logging contracts in Pontiac, becoming a citizen of some local importance and providing very well for his family, before the age of twenty.  With a calm decisiveness that belies his age, Joe also foresees the decline of the lumber industry, and recognizes new opportunities opening in the West, where a great new railroad was being built through the Rockies. After carefully arranging for the future of all his siblings, he heads west to make his fortune.

Enter Iseult Wilkins — a young,  newly orphaned  New England heiress, beautiful, romantic, and with artistic sensibilities — everything that Joe wasn’t, or hadn’t had a chance to be.  Having just settled her mother’s estate (her father died when she was young) she is, at the moment that her path crosses Joe’s, extraordinarily free and just as directionless.  Dynamic and single-minded, Joe desperately needs some beauty and softness in his life.  Iseult needs an anchor.  Together, they forge a dynamic partnership, heading to the Canadian Rockies, where Joe’s engagement in the high-stakes business of  rail line contracting, leaves him a wealthy man. The story follows the family through two world wars, the focus shifting somewhat to the next generation by the time of the second war.

It’s a grand story, a great Canadian rags-to-riches saga, spanning the historical period in which we found ourselves as a nation. Behrens is a deceptively smooth writer, almost to the point of invisibility. The seamless flow of the story is both its strength and its weakness.  Reading is effortless; chapters fly by. In the end, however, the effect is somewhat diffuse. The early chapters which deal with Joe and Iseult’s courtship are genuinely charming, and the young lovers’ adventures in the Rockies entirely believable, the excitement of nation building palpable and nicely in sync with the formative years of the couple’s relationship.  Iseult’s character is finely crafted, particularly in the early passages where we meet her as a young woman making her first tentative steps out into the world as an autonomous being.  Joe, however, despite hints of a deeper nature, remains essentially an enigma, to himself and to the  reader–unresolved emotional issues suggested by occasional lonely drinking binges, but never fully explored.  The emotional succession of a marriage is convincingly portrayed, as Joe and Iseult’s relationship evolves from youth to  maturity, accruing wounds small and large, different stages of life testing its weaknesses as well as its strengths.

A fascinating, fictionalized slice of our history, convincingly presented in an epic style, unapologetically naming our places and illuminating our foundation stories — Canadian literature could use more of this!

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