Peter Behrens’ New Book Traces a Family Saga That Spans Generations and Countries

Lee Polevoi


The O’Briens

By Peter Behrens

Pantheon, 384 pages


 In a novel that will come to span generations and move between Canada, New York, New England and California, Peter Behrens’ The O’Briens opens on an appealingly intimate note:


“The old priest waltzed with each of the O’Brien children while his pretty housekeeper, Mme Painchaud, operated the Victrola. She was a widow whose husband had been killed at the sawmill. Sliding the disc from its paper sleeve, she carefully placed it on the turntable and started turning the crank. As the needle settled onto the disc, a Strauss waltz began bleating from the machine’s horn, which resembled, Joe O’Brien thought, some gigantic dark flower that bees would enter to sip nectar and rub fertile dust from their legs.”


Novels described as “sweeping” and “multigenerational” rarely make their way into the ranks of literary fiction. The O’Briens earns this distinction through its attention to language and place. 


Starting in 1900 in Pontiac County, a backwoods region of Quebec, the saga centers on teenage Joe O’Brien, whose early ambition is to build railroads out west. First he must tend to his widowed mother and four younger siblings, who are in need of protection from a new stepfather, Mick Heaney (“just another mouth to feed, and when he drank he was brutal”). After discovering the depths of Mick Heany’s depravity, Joe administers his own form of  rough justice before taking his brood away from Pontiac County and into their new lives.


In the next section, “The Orphan,” set in Venice Beach in 1912, Joe meets Iseult Wilkins, the fiercely independent young woman who will become his wife and, later, the neurasthenic matriarch of the O’Brien clan. Their courtship on the boardwalk along the Pacific is delicately wrought, and some of the novel’s most evocative passages center on the small house she’s purchased there and how it intermingles with her budding love for Joe:


“ … he had probed her thoughts. Listened to her. And she’d felt her body exercising some radiant power over his—she hadn’t admitted that to herself until now, but it was true. She’d felt it. She made up her blanket bed and began cleaning her kitchen, scouring the sink, washing down countertops, throwing out orange peel, coffee grounds, and empty soup tins. She couldn’t stop. She went from room to room, dusting every window ledge, breathing sharp, shallow breaths, her heart pounding. After an hour the house was perfectly orderly and clean, but still it did not satisfy, and she did not know what more she could do.”

From here, The O’Briens moves to British Columbia, where Joe and Iseult’s new marriage barely survives a devastating tragedy, and from there, over six decades, to Santa Barbara, Maine and Montreal. Joe builds a large, successful business, but inner doubts haunt him throughout his life, doubts that are only ever briefly vanquished by lonely bouts with alcohol in hotels in New York City. As settings change, so does the focus of the novel—from Joe and Iseult, to Joe’s high-flying and reckless brother Grattan, his troubled son Mike and his daughters Margo and Frankie. Years pass through the torment of death, divorce and two world wars. Yet somehow the family endures.


Peter Behrens’ first novel, The Law of Dreams, received the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and he has also published Night Driving, a collection of short stories. His prose is clear and lyrical, and he demonstrates a deep empathy for all of his characters. If the intensity of the early chapters gives way to a less focused, more rambling account of the lives of the O’Brien clan, this may be as much a function of this type of novel as his conception and execution. Some critical episodes occur off-stage, while others feel muted or somehow intentionally less dramatic than they might have been. But throughout, Behrens’ affinity for landscape and family shine through.


Near the end, 70-year-old Joe O’Brien embarks on a sailboat excursion with his granddaughter Madeleine off the coast of Cape Breton. They come to Baddeck in Nova Scotia, “a tiny little burg,” and at the invitation of a local boy, Madeleine goes ashore to a dance. Later that night, 

Joe decides to row his dinghy to shore in a thick fog, fearing for his granddaughter’s safety, but injures his head in the process:


“With both hands gripping the oars there was nothing to do except row to the dock and tie up. He’d need to clean up somewhere. He couldn’t tell if it was a scrape or a gash, but she wasn’t going to be happy to see it; he had better see if he could rinse it off somewhere … The things he remembered—the wildness and brutality, Mick Heany slapping his mother, sawing away at his fiddle—that was all fifty, sixty years ago. That world was gone, dead and buried. If he tried holding on to things that had never belonged to him in the first place, something would get twisted, something would get broken. Fear wasn’t a lesson he’d ever meant to teach anyone.”


The O’Briens honors the deep ties of family, no matter how much they are tested by the vagaries of time and landscape.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter.

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Delia Rollins, the Globe and Mail
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