Reviewed by Russell Morton Brown
Peter Behrens’ powerful first novel has been a long time coming. His previous book, the short story collection Night Driving, was published in 1987, with some of its stories written a decade before that. If Behrens has needed some thirty years to prepare himself for The Law of Dreams, the wait has been worthwhile.
Night Driving showed its author learning from a variety of sources: its first story sounds like the masculinist writing of early Richard Ford; a later one draws on the Southern Gothic as channelled by Leon Rooke; others recall the textured relationships in Mavis Gallant’s writing, explore the dispirited western ethos of Guy Vanderhaeghe’s early fiction, or display the complex emotional arcs that characterize the narratives of Clark Blaise (who wrote the book’s back-cover blurb). Good models all, but our awareness of them shows Behrens still assimilating what he had been reading.
The Law of Dreams is quite different. It’s told with a burnished and sometimes terse imagism that no longer signals its debts.
The coal fire sizzled in the grate. Fragrance of butter, toast, blackberry jam, and tea with sugar clouded the room. … Shea poured the tea and Mary, in a crisp white cap and apron, handed the cups around. He had grown fond of the whores’ drink of tea, its smoky flavor. They never had tasted tea on the mountain. Water or whiskey. Milk he'd tasted from Phoebe’s pail, or stolen, squeezed from her father’s cows in the field. Men drank porter in the beer shops on market day, after selling the pig.
This writing makes use of the “poetic” style we associate with a number of contemporary fiction writers, many of whom began as poets: Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart, Anne Michaels, and Michael Redhill. As in their work, this style is sometimes at odds with the harrowing material it recounts.
He'd been beaten, often. The open palm, the fist, the stick. Speechless violence, what men seemed to admire most of all. The humiliation almost unbearable, far worse than the pain.
The next scream flickered so fast, like a startled bird, he almost believed he hadn't heard a thing.
When Behrens decided to tell this story set within the environmental disaster that disrupted nineteenth-century Ireland, he was responding to the bits of family history he had heard growing up in Montreal. His choice also speaks to our current concerns with the environment, and the close appearance of The Law of Dreams and American novelist Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, The Road, is a sign of our uneasy times: in each an ecologically devastated world causes a breakdown in civilized order that sends its starving inhabitants on perilous and uncertain journeys. But Behrens’ picaresque narrative and his retelling of past events with lyric realism is quite different from McCarthy’s spare fable of future journeying in a post-apocalyptic world chiefly inhabited by shadowy and monstrous humans. In contrast to the restricted canvas of The Road, The Law of Dreams is filled with vivid events and with colourful characters that bring a mixture of kindness and threats.
When Behrens’ protagonist, Fergus O'Brien, is expelled from the farmlands that defined all he knew, he must go for the first time where “the world is strangers,” guided only by what he calls “the law of dreams”—which is “keep moving.” Driven by his sense that “your dead want an answer and all you have is memory and the road,” he lives a version of the nineteenth-century Irish diaspora. He is put into and escapes a workhouse in Ireland; he allies himself with a gang of wild youths roaming the countryside; he journeys to Liverpool in England, where he lives for a time in a bawdy house; next he travels to Wales, finding there a female companion who alternately saves and betrays him. Together they undertake the difficult Atlantic crossing aboard one of the coffin ships on which so many perished. In the novel’s conclusion Fergus has arrived in Montreal; there, alone once more, he realizes that further journeying lies ahead.
The accomplishment of The Law of Dreams is how, in all this telling, it locates the reader inside the skin of its main character. This is the novel as experience, a book to be lived.
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MLA: Brown, Russell Morton. Keep Moving. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 100 - 101)
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