Fresh steps on a worn path
Don Anderson The Law of Dreams By Peter Behrens Text Publishing, 394pp, $ 32.95
AT first I misheard, thinking I was being asked to write about the latest novel from John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , which lasted on The New York Times bestseller list for 216 weeks, and whose most recent novel, The City of Falling Angels , set in Venice, had left me less than impressed.
But, no, I was being asked to look at The Law of Dreams , the first novel by Montreal- based Peter Behrens, which won the Canadian Governor- General’s literary award for fiction.
I tell of this mishearing not as a reflection on my auditory apparatus. Canada is doomed to be overwhelmed by its powerful neighbour and by that neighbour’s writers, at least by reputation, due to America’s publishing hegemony.
Everyone has heard of Margaret Atwood, but who in this Great South Land has heard of Timothy Findley, author of Dinner Along the Amazon ( 1984), or Alistair MacLeod, whose No Great Mischief won the International Dublin IMPAC Literary Award for 2001?
The Law of Dreams rehearses an oft- told tale of migration from Ireland in the 1840s to the brave New World. For this novel’s young hero, Fergus O’Brien, it is to Canada, at least temporarily, passage from Liverpool to Montreal being cheaper than to American ports.
Fergus, like so many of his compatriots, flees Ireland in the wake of 19th- century Western Europe’s worst catastrophe — the Irish potato famine — overcoming circumstances at home, shipboard and in the New World so dire as to defy comprehension.
So Behrens’s novel contains the potato blight, the Great Famine, the consequent typhus plague and grinding poverty, though the characters being Irish, live in poverty but talk in poetry. From Ireland to Liverpool, in December 1846 to January 1847, Fergus, as ‘‘ fresh fish’’, lives among prostitutes and fails to serve as a ‘‘ pearl boy’’, or male prostitute.
From Liverpool to North Wales, Fergus works on railroad trucks and learns of ‘‘ money, the hard power of the world’’. From April to May 1847, Fergus is a steerage passenger on his way to Canada. The ship becomes a plague ship. After 41 days at sea, they are delivered to a quarantine island in Quebec. With more good luck than good judgment, our Irish hero heads south to Boston, with an assistant and four horses to sell. He cannot be aware that he is being sold down the river.
In Boston he will find a dominant white Anglo- Saxon class who regard themselves as ‘‘ native Americans’’ and regard the Irish as childlike buffoons: lazy, superstitious and given to double talk, inflated rhetoric and comic misuse of proper English.
This novel, which retells an all- too- common narrative, must distinguish itself from its fellows, and it does so through its style, which is always lucid, limpid and in proud possession of Irish patois. Behrens’s sentences tend to generalise, though the generalisation may be that of the character rather than the author. ‘‘ The world is hard and real, the world is not private.’’ Assuredly not for those suffering grinding privation. ‘‘ The world was composite, various, and got along very well without you. It could sew you up with a couple of stones and throw you in the ocean. It would not remember your name.’’ That is why we have novels, and poetry, to remember names, even if they be fictional ones. Don Anderson taught American literature at the University of Sydney for three decades.