The O’Briens by Peter Behrens is a sprawling family saga that follows the life of Joe O’Brien. Chronicling Joe’s life from his childhood protecting his siblings from an abusive stepfather Joe’s business building a section of the railroad to his children going off to fight in World War II, The O’Briens also depicts a slice of Canadian history. I haven’t read Behrens’ first novel, The Law of Dreams, and at first I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to understand this novel, but I found that O’Briens works wonderfully as a stand-alone as well.
Joe is a fascinating character, and I enjoyed watching him grow from a protective older brother to a scarred father. Like his own father, Joe has a thirst for travel, and I love how this restlessness was later inherited by Joe’s son Mike. In a novel about exploring North America and eventually settling down with a family, the O’Brien wanderlust is an apt family trait. The best parts of O’Briens are where Behrens really delves into very raw emotions, to the point that the situation can make the reader uncomfortable. The section, for example, where Joe leads his siblings in dealing with their stepfather is rather disturbing, mostly because the persons involved are young children, but I love seeing Joe’s struggle to be the father figure for his siblings and his desire to force them to grow up as well so they can survive even without him. I love the scene where Iseult has to give birth without Joe around, a terrifying episode, and Behrens captures the emotions wonderfully.
I also love the little quirks that define characters. Iseult’s obsession with photography for example, reminds me of my own mother, who loved taking pictures, though thankfully not to the extent Iseult does. The part about Iseult stopping to take a photo of her crying child before running over to see if first aid is required could have come off as gimmicky, but Behrens has set it up so well beforehand that the extent of her obsession feels natural.
Behrens’ descriptions are poetic, and I really liked some of the phrases. About stained glass windows, Behrens writes, “Rich shards of colour broke through those exuberant windows, and exotic scents — silver polish, English tobacco, China tea — drifted through the chiaroscuro rooms.” At times, I would’ve preferred a bit more subtlety in the way he depicts emotions: “Iseult felt her lungs deflate, withering as grief closed in. […] As [the phone receiver] dangled on its wire, she got slowly down on hands and needs, touched her forehead to the Tabriz carpet, then rolled over and lay on her side on the mottled wool, gasping and wheezing…” While I actually liked the image of lungs withering with grief, I found the scene getting somewhat melodramatic as it went on. What I did like, however, was that Behrens then immediately balances it out with humour, having the housekeeper Cordelia walk in and trip over Iseult’s body.
I liked the novel best when it was focused on Joe growing up. I wished it had shown more of his siblings other than Grattan — with the priest character so prominent in the first chapter, I was interested in seeing how the siblings who entered the religious life dealt with it — but I can understand Joe being completely separated from them. I didn’t find the chapters with Joe’s children as compelling, with the major exception of the part about Mike running away from home. The latter part of the novel, switching between Joe’s three children, felt somewhat disjointed, and I would’ve preferred having a central character in the next generation at least, or even Joe himself, to have provided a focal point of view.
Overall, a good book and compelling family saga. The book’s publisher Anansi has been kind enough to provide me with a copy of the book for to give away (Canadians only, please). To enter your name in the draw, just leave a comment telling me where your family is from and where in the world you would settle if you had the choice. Please also leave your email address, so we can contact you if you win. I’ll pick a random winner on June 13th.
Peter has also been kind enough to write a guest post for my blog. Keep an eye out for it tomorrow. Leave a comment on his post for an extra entry into the contest.