The O’Briens

Written by Peter Behrens
Review by Helene Williams

Behrens follows up his Governor General’s award-winning Law of Dreams with a multi-generational family saga. At the turn of the 20th century, Pontiac County, Quebec, is a lightly populated timber region, and by the time Joe O’Brien becomes the man of the family at age thirteen, he’s already cutting and selling cords of wood and making his plans to get rich by following the trees, or the railroad, or whatever will take him away. His organizational skills and vision don’t preclude his seeing to the family’s safety, and just a few years later he ensures that his brothers and sisters will also escape, though he has no idea how the decisions he makes about his siblings’ futures will affect his own.

He falls in love and marries, during a brief interlude in his peripatetic, fortune-seeking life. His wife follows him through many a rough adventure of fiscal, moral, and natural loss and gain, and we discover that she, too, is seeking something intangible, something that could be confused with love or belonging or success.

The O’Briens grow and prosper as a family, and the reader gets tantalizing scenes of Venice Beach, California, in 1912, with its budding tourist industry and creeping fog banks, of desolate stretches of British Columbia where Joe’s company put in the railroad, of the relentlessly encroaching tide in Santa Barbara that threatened to sink his house. There are trips to New York City and the coast of Maine, and long stretches in Montreal, where the O’Briens eventually settle. Each locale is well-researched, and Behrens skillfully incorporates both place and personality throughout the novel. Throughout, there’s the sense of an approaching storm, whether meteorological or psychological, as Joe O’Brien tries to control the forces impinging on his vision, which kept this reader eagerly turning the pages.