BROOKLIN — Peter Behrens has followed his award-winning debut novel “The Law of Dreams” with a critically acclaimed second novel.
“The O’Briens” was released in the United States by Pantheon Books in March.
Behrens, a native of Montreal, was recently at his Brooklin home, resting from a grueling book tour that was both exhausting and exhilarating.
“It’s kind of exhausting and I need this week home in Brooklin,” he said of the tour. “It’s been thrilling. You write a book — spend years — then throw it out in the world. It could splash and go to the bottom. A lot of people are reading it, and that’s huge fun for me.”
The book also has brought huge fun to its readers.
“Moments of grace and romance are rocked by cruel words and violence in this epic, a piece of rough beauty itself,” said Publishers Weekly.
The Library Journal said: “Behrens’s characters are engaging and the history of various cities, budding industries, and wars expertly handled. . . . Behrens’ writing is strong.”
Spanning some 50 years “in the lives of a restless family,” the novel takes readers on a journey from backwoods Canada to New York and California, as Joe O’Brien, the grandson of a “potato-famine [Irish] emigrant, exchanges isolation and poverty for a share in the dazzling riches and consuming sorrows of the 20th century.”
In this epic saga, Behrens accomplishes what few other novels of this depth do — his readers become enthralled within the opening pages, not after several chapters.
Behrens gives his readers a quick and deep connection to the characters in the novel through masterful description, revealing depth of character through sparse writing.
Consider the depth of character and background revealed in this passage about Iseult Wilkins, Joe O’Brien’s future wife: “When Iseult was twenty, her beloved father — a scholar by temperament, a mill owner by inheritance, a New England gentleman of the old school — had killed himself.
“He’d never had to struggle with anything other than his own disposition and native sorrow, but it had been too much for him all the same.”
We learn more of Iseult in these terse lines: “Iseult had never been good at developing sustaining friendships with other young women.
“At boarding school in New York City, most of her classmates were from large Catholic families and accustomed to layered networks of relationships, easy habits of intimacy. As the only child of older parents, she was not.”
Behrens brilliant description is often accomplished with a single phrase.
When Iseult accompanies a nun on her weekly mission to comfort the poor, the nun speaks to a German prostitute, Flossie, who is jailed after stabbing a man the night before.
“Clinging to the iron bars, Flossie was pretty in a demolished way,” writes Behrens.
More of Iseult is revealed in the following paragraph when he writes, “All her life Iseult had been handled like a carefully wrapped package.”
In a review from Daily Beast, the writer suggests the overriding theme in “The O’Briens” — “There is no big lesson or grand summing up, just life, experienced day to day by people struggling to make sense of it and find a reason to go on.”
Behrens said he agrees with the writer’s take.
“It is right on in terms of what I’m trying to do,” he affirmed.
Behrens said the book contains “ideas about history and how people walk around dragging history behind them — family past, cultural past and national past.”
“Today we feel like we live in the present moment because of technology,” he said. “We pretend history doesn’t exist. Of course, it does.”
The historical research evident in “The O’Briens” also enhances the book.
In an author’s note, Behrens notes that “characters inspired by real people soon asserted themselves and began feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that had nothing to do with anyone’s family history or genealogy. My O’Briens live in the world of this novel, nowhere else.”
Despite the disclaimer, Behrens said the novel owes much of its existence on his own family.
“My mother was Frankie O’Brien,” he said. “Joe is inspired by my grandfather, John Joseph O’Brien, but I’m writing about adults I knew as a child. I had to make up their inner selves.
“It certainly was inspired by [my] growing up in the O’Brien Tribe.”
Behrens grew up in Montreal, spending his summers in southern Maine.
He said his first novel, which received Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, was about his great-great-grandfather, who came from County Clare in 1847 to escape the potato famine in Ireland.
He said he invented his grandfather’s story for the book, but the family’s roots in the famine are based on research.
While that background is shared by characters in “The O’Briens,” it is barely mentioned in the book.
“These characters are not interested in the past,” Behrens said. “They are interested in the present and the future, but their lives are conditioned by the past, particularly the Irish famine.
“‘The O’Briens’ is all about geography opening up. From the backwoods of Canada to coastal California, it’s about opening.
“Joe O’Brien’s career is based on building railways in western Canada. I had that from researching my grandfather’s life. I wanted a sense of the world, and every place is a place I know well. The book is grounded in my familiarity with place.