The O’Briens, by Peter Behrens

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

If there is a central metaphor for Canada — not just the country itself, but also the character of the country — it is the symbolism of the railway that links us “from sea to shining sea”. The natural topography of North America flows north-south not east-west. Even today, commerce and trade flow in that direction; had it not been for the railway providing a countervailing “east-west” force, there would have never been a Canada.

While the country is now approaching its 150th birthday (2017 — and I suspect we’ll be wanting Prince William and Catherine back for that) and the “last spike” was driven in 1885, the metaphor is so pervasive that it extends into modern life. By way of personal example, my journalistic career was spent at the Calgary Herald, which celebrated its own centenary in 1983 when I was the managing editor. I mention that because the first Calgary Herald “press” arrived on the very first train that arrived in this Western Canadian city — and let me assure you that every tour of the Herald building to this day reminds visitors of that fact.

Author Peter Behrens has his own ties to the metaphor of railway (you’ll find out more in his guest post tomorrow) and has appropriated it (along with some others) in his new family epic, The O’Briens. Behrens arrived on Canada’s literary scene in 2006 with The Law of Dreams, a Governor-General’s Award winner about “the poverty of his family’s Irish immigrant roots” to quote the jacket cover of this book (I confess to not having read it). He returns to those roots in this new novel — if the first was about immigrant poverty, this one is about how at least part of the family became prosperous, not unlike the growing prosperity of the Canada that was their new home.

Joe O’Brien is the central character in the story and we meet him and his family in Pontiac County, Quebec in the early 1900s. His father died in the Boer War when he was 13 and his mother, thinking there was no other way of surviving, re-married a drunken fiddler, Mick Heaney:

Their stepfather was just another mouth to feed, and when he drank he was brutal, but he was absent for weeks at a time. The only other good thing about Mick Heaney was that his seed was infertile, so Ellenora did not bear any more children to share in what little they had.

It doesn’t take long for Joe the entrepreneur to emerge:

When he was fifteen, Joe knew his mother was exhausted. There were days she hadn’t the strength to get out of bed. That winter, using firewood money [Joe's first earnings came from delivering firewood in the village], he leased timber rights for fifty cents an acre on forty acres controlled by the parish, and he contracted to supply logs at such-and-such a price to a pulp mill downriver.

Joe is too young to sign the contract, but his mother does, with the priest as guarantor. He makes a net profit of one hundred dollars and the next winter obtains leases for 320 acres — a capitalist has had his successful start.

Life in the family is far less rosy. His mother’s health is slipping but, even more unsettling, one of his younger brothers reports that Mick has been molesting their two young sisters. The three brothers have their revenge on Mick, taking turns kicking the body of the passed-out fiddler before sending him on his way — Joe, now the family patriarch, has already planned the futures of himself and his siblings after his mother dies, which happens only a few months later. Sisters Hope and Kate are sent to the Visitations convent in Ottawa, brother Grattan has a job offer from a wealthy Santa Barbara citrus grower (a benefactor of the local priest’s order) and brother Tom is delivered to a Franciscan order in the Bronx to train as a priest. Joe himself will be heading West.

All that occurs in section one of the novel, which takes a mere 57 pages of the 548-page book. I have gone into more detail than perhaps is warranted, but I wanted to provide some indication of Behrens’ approach. The novel is divided into sections that often involve skipping decades — but in each period where he chooses to stop and narrate, the author is devoted to providing substantial detail. It is his way (and he is very successful at it) of providing as complete a picture as possible of the times, environment and his characters in each of these snapshots of time. Collectively, they build the story of both a family and a developing country.

“Snapshots” become an important metaphor in section two of the book, set in the new suburb of Venice Beach, California, in 1912. Grattan O’Brien is selling houses in the new development and we are introduced to Iseult, New Hampshire-born but Pasadena-raised, now eager to escape that stuffy, established enclave for a place by the seashore. She buys a cottage in the new development and meets the visiting Joe O’Brien, still in his twenties but now an established railway engineer with a contract to build “a mountain section, through the Selkirks in British Columbia”. This is Canada’s second trans-continental railway line, the Canadian Northern, a few hundred miles north of the Canadian Pacific. Joe may only be 25 but he is now an employer of thousands of laborers (a mixture of Chinese and other immigrants) — winter is understandably downtime for Canadian mountain railway constuction (“my piece is frozen up and snowed under at the moment”) and he is on his way to look at a project in Mexico.

Iseult proves to be a significant distraction and Joe never gets to Mexico — the two marry and the next generation of the O’Brien family story is set in motion, but not before Iseult has learned photography from Grattan’s wife, Elise (both will be significant characters in the rest of the book). Joe sets this in motion by introducing Iseult to Elise:

“She makes a living with postcards and studio portraits, but every Sunday she goes out on the boardwalk and takes snaps of strangers — I don’t know why because there is no money in it. She’s a Jew, Elise. The priest at St. Monica’s refused to marry them even though she agreed the children would be baptized Catholic. I wrote him to see if I could change his mind; my brother did as well, but he never replied, so Grattan and Elise were married at Santa Monica City Hall.”

With that, you have the foundation elements of Behrens’ story — Joe the builder, Iseult the observor, Grattan the ne’er-do-well wanderer, Elise the artist, all affected by the pressures of the current time. While it is the Church and railway building in these early stages, that final aspect constantly changes — the novel’s time frame extends to 1960, so the Great War, Prohibition, the Depression, World War II and the post-war years are all to come. Canada came of age during that period; this novel is the story of the successes, tensions and disasters that one family faced as that history unfolded.

Let me emphasize that this review has done little more than introduce Behrens’ story — I have opted to try to indicate how he approaches each of his portraits rather than try to provide an overview of the broader canvas. This novel is the author’s version of his own family history and he has opted to look in depth at various periods in it. I’ve tried to indicate the depth rather than breadth — for me, his approach did capture both.

Historical family sagas are not normally my cup of tea, but The O’Briens did keep me enrolled from start to finish. I know enough Canadian history to appreciate the way that Behrens respects it; the way that he has chosen to structure his novel allows him to create his own “snapshots” of both the particular era and his family. Character development is strong (I haven’t even mentioned Joe and Iseult’s children who are major players) and that, coupled with his perceptive observations on the world they are part of in each period, kept me enrolled throughout. The novel won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you have any attraction at all to historical novels, The O’Briens is a signifcant achievement.

As I indicated above, a guest post from Peter Behrens that provides some background to the novel will be up tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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4 Responses to “The O’Briens, by Peter Behrens”

  1. leroyhunter Says:

    The “detailed focus on specific periods with big gaps in between” approach you describe reminds me of reviews of the new Adam Hollinghurst book, Kevin.

    Neither would be really on my radar although they sound like involving and well-written tales. Thanks for the review and the thoughts on nation-building, Canada-style.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: You raise a good point — I started the Hollinghurst just yesterday and my first response was also that his approach reminded me of The O’Briens (I am only in section two but reviews indicate that that continues). The two novels are also set in roughly the same time period, at least at the start. I’m afraid that after that any comparison probably does both Hollinghurst and Behrens no favor. Historical novels have to be above the norm to keep me interested — Behrens certainly was and Hollinghurst is so far as well. For those who are more attracted to the genre, I’d say this novel deserves to be recommended.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    Interesting that you’re reading Hollinghurst Kevin – I look forward to your review. The notices it is getting at present seem a little lavish, but maybe it is that good.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: It is not out until October in North America and I was ambivalent enough about The Line of Beauty that I was going to wait to see if this one was Booker longlisted. Then, lucky for me, I was able to get an ARC so I decided to give it a go now — after 200 pages, I would say it is on the positive side of neutral and could go either way (or stay pretty much neutral, for that matter).

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