The O'Briens

The O’Briens starts with us being introduced to Joe, grandson of Fergus, the central character in Behrens’ earlier novel, The Law of Dreams. We follow Joe and his family as they travel from Quebec to California, British Columbia and Maine, with a stop or two in Mexico and New York City. We see the world change over the course of 60 years from the viewpoint of several generations of the O’Brien family.

When we first meet Joe he is 13 years old, the eldest of five, and already the head of the house. His mother is failing and his father has disappeared, succumbing to the wanderlust that afflicts many of the O’Brien men. Joe is a fast learner and starts in business at a very young age, earning enough money to look after the whole family.

Joe is 17 when his mother dies, and he decides to move out west to make a fresh start and find his fortune. After making arrangements for the rest of his siblings, Joe makes stops at Coney Island to take stock and “…be alone with himself, to block out the world for a few days.” (p.53) For the first time in his life he is not only alone but free of all encumbrances and responsibilities. He finds it both exhilarating and paralysing and it takes a week of solitude and wrestling with a few demons before he is ready to move on and start carrying out the plan he outlined during his stopover: to find a wife, to have sons and daughters. When he meets Iseult Wilkins several years later in Venice, California, the first part of his plan falls into place.

Iseult recently lost her mother and is in a similar state to the one Joe was in at Coney Island. “She wanted to just be for awhile. To collect herself. Much of her life had just been a refraction of her parents’ desires and needs. She wanted light, and time to think…with nothing else for company.” (102) She feels unmoored but free. She wants to live with more intensity, and in that, she is a perfect match for Joe. Watching surfers at the beach with him, “She felt a tremble of excitement and suddenly knew she had to transpose her life into another key — harsher, riskier…she felt space opening up within her chest, lungs expanding, the power to breathe deeply and well.” (p.121)

Joe falls hard for Iseult and because of her, delays his trip to Mexico to examine a proposed railway route. After a whirlwind, five week courtship they are married and he whisks her off to Mexico for a combined honeymoon and business trip. Iseult is as open to adventure as Joe and shares his passion to try new things. He makes her things in a way she never has before. As the train enters Mexico, they are attacked by rebels and Joe pins her down to protect her. Amid the bullets and the screaming, Iseult feels “Slight nausea, exhilaration, and a sense of her life coming open, sudden and entire.” (p. 141) And so their married life begins.

They set up house in a tent in a railway camp in British Columbia, as Joe’s crew works on a section of the new railway system. Joe and Iseult contend with their share of difficulties and grief over the years, some of it seemingly unbearable, but with their strong foundation, no matter how off course they become, or adrift from one another, they always find each other again.

The first part of the novel is quite intense and we get to know Joe very well as a young man and then an infatuated husband. We know what he thinks and how he feels and gain some understanding of his motivations. After his Coney Island stop we don’t see Joe again until he meets Iseult in California. But now we see him through Iseult’s eyes, and in the beginning of their relationship they are extremely close and her view of him continues to be strong and fully developed. Later on, as the closeness of the marriage wanes and Iseult becomes less happy, and contemplates leaving Joe, the picture of Joe becomes more closed and remote.

The perspective of the story changes in the middle part as the second generation takes over. Joe and Iseult become secondary figures as we see the world through the eyes of their children, Mike, Margo and Frankie. We see Frankie grow up and watch Mike go off to war, estranged from his father. We feel Margo’s joy, then sadness as she falls in love, becomes a mother, and longs for her soldier husband to return. We get a broader picture now, a sense of more people, more change, more things happening in the world. It is like the stream of people that Iseult saw on the boardwalk in Venice. A general throng, an overall view, with no one thing standing out, except once in awhile something special, with more detail.

For example, Mike is a pilot with the RAF and and his view of the war and his sense of humour come through when he writes to Margo about how tired they all are and starting to make mistakes: “A chap was killed the other day flying into a Chance light. Good pilot too. If it were a hockey game we’d be calling for a line change!” (p.402) Or Johnny Taschereau, Margo’s husband, expressing his love but also a feeling of being disconnected:

I’m thinking of your wrists now.

I once knew my wife, down to her bones.

Do you have a sweet tan this summer? Comme une huronne?

Let me dispose of my adjectives, please. In your arms, please let me release them.








You see I have slipped into nouns… (p.430)

These are two brief examples of Behrens’ evocative language. He has a gift for painting a picture, of expressing that person in such a way that we see and understand them at that moment in their life.

Although the glimpses into their characters are illuminating, I miss the fact that none of the next generation is portrayed in the same depth as the parents. We get a peek into their makeup but we don’t spend as much time with them or get to know them as well. None of them has the personality of Joe or Iseult.

Overall, it is a colourful journey that we take with the O’Brien family as they live through six incredible decades of the twentieth century. They participate in two world wars, survive the Depression, and play a siginificant role in the building of the railroad. The world changes drastically from 1900 to 1960, and Joe at 73 is not the same person he was at 13. But he is still the patriarch, the strong centre of the family, and the one we care about the most. When the focus returns to him in the end we are happy to get to know him again and to see him finding his way once more.

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