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
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
Iseult recently lost her mother and is in a similar state to the one Joe was in at
Joe falls hard for Iseult and because of her, delays his trip to
They set up house in a tent in a railway camp in
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
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
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.