It would seem the greater the sweep of history encompassed by a novel, the more confined the writer. The facts of history are many and easily called out, the settings, characters and dialogue are well-defined by their eras and the more years a story covers, the shallower the characters can become as they are stretched and diluted by time.
It is, therefore, deeply satisfying to read a saga as intimate and profound as The O'Briens. Peter Behrens is a master of the art of storytelling. He understands the fine balance between enchanting prose and compelling facts.
The O'Briens begins deep in the pine forests of northern Quebec in 1887 and ends in a dinghy just off the Cape Breton coast in 1960. It follows the fortunes and tragedies of Joe O'Brien, the oldest of five siblings who lose first their father to the Boer War, then their mother to despair and disease. Joe, although taciturn and moody, is a natural leader with an affinity for numbers and an ambition that he uses to propel himself and his siblings out of Canada's back country when he is barely a teenager. Fans of Peter Behrens will recognize the O'Brien determination from the author's previous novel Law of Dreams, which tells the story of Joe's grandfather, Fergus O'Brien, who escaped the famine in Ireland to immigrate to Canada two generations earlier.
Joe rushes across North America, from the forests of British Columbia to the beaches of Southern California and down to Mexico, building a fortune in railroad construction. In 1912, at a quiet real estate office in Venice Beach, Joe encounters a young French-American woman, Iseult Wilkins. Iseult has just buried her mother and she too is an orphan, as restless as Joe, yet constrained by her gender and limited financial resources.
Passion and recognition of kindred spirits bring Joe and Iseult to an altar within weeks of their first meeting. It is in depicting this marriage, an invisible ribbon that shreds to a breaking point by years of betrayal and grief and is knotted anew by tenderness and love, that Behrens reveals some of his greatest strengths as a writer. We come to know Joe and Iseult as much as they allow us to, their voices ringing true as they falter and succumb to their own vanities.
Other characters, such as Joe's brother Grattan, his daughters Frankie and Margo and son Mike, are no less vivid for playing secondary roles. Their stories bring us directly into the emotional devastation of the men who fought in World War I and World War II and of the families left, waiting for the worst news.
Behrens is an atmospheric writer. His settings are vivid, his characters feel and react with tremendous emotion, his prose is rich and lambent. Yet his pacing is precise and brisk. He has such a great span of time to cover - one with many world-changing events - but he selects the most pivotal and delves deeply, showing his characters' development by how they respond to their circumstances.
It was a difficult book to set aside each evening when I knew I had to stock up on sleep; I found myself longing for the free afternoon and early morning late in the week when I could be enfolded by Behrens's story. This is a luminous read.