A friend of mine loathes most Canadian fiction, decrying the same tropes that seem to be recycled time and time again. In all likelihood, she would not enjoy The O’Briens, Peter Behrens follow-up to his 2006 prize-winner Law of Dreams. For those of us who do enjoy a finely-written historical doorstopper, recycled tropes be damned; The O’Briens fulfils the desire for an enjoyable if familiar read.
Spanning the length and breadth of the continent, The O’Briens centres on Joe O’Brien, a descendant of Fergus O’Brien from Law of Dreams, who pulls himself and his family out of the Pontiac lumber camps to establish himself as an early industrialist. His central purpose and defining characteristics are established early on, following the news of his father’s death in the far-off Boer War.
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 (8).
This matter-of-fact realization directs much of the plot as Joe positions himself as a would-be patriarch. Not only does he decide his siblings’ futures, quickly dispatching them off to convents and college, he attempts the same unilateralism with the family he creates with his wife Iseult, who later observes
This is how he expressed his love for them: by organizing them into his plans and rhythms, his own needs (326).
Yet Joe is far from an ogre and the push-pull with his family delivers little actual conflict. Indeed, though he is portrayed as a man with a forceful personality, this reader never quite felt his power. If anything, the ambition that drove him out of the woods becomes quickly domesticated by his easy success. Therein rests one of the central weaknesses of the narrative; namely, Joe serves as the lynchpin for the wider story but his own character is so capable and loyal that any conflicts he does encounter results in minimal dramatic tension. Even his flaws seem hastily manufactured as if to counterbalance his otherwise golden ascent from the poor backwoods to the echelons of Montreal society.
Fortunately Behrens’ development of other characters in the text is more daring and consequently read as more interesting. Iseult, Joe’s realized vision of a “clean girl whose family wouldn’t let her have anything to do with a fellow from the clearings. Not until he had made something of himself, done something powerful” (39), is a fully realized woman of privilege who roughs it in the railroad camps with her new husband while Joe’s brother, Grattan, a directionless veteran and his long-suffering wife Elise also hold the reader’s attention. If anything, one wonders if the narrative would have been more compelling if it followed the younger brother rather than the elder. With the next generation of O’Briens, the story does lose some of its momentum. We anticipate what the Second World War will bring and how it will fragment or fuse the family together.
Such are the limitations of a novel that follow the familiar arc of the early and mid-20th century, a pattern well trod in the Canadian canon. In the end what saves The O’Briens is Behrens’ craft; he is an elegant writer who is able to balance the voices of multiple characters across decades. His pacing is strong and many of the images he creates are vivid. The O’Briens is a finely written novel that is epic in scope and comfortable in execution, recycled tropes or not.