Fresh steps on a worn path

Don An­der­son The Law of Dreams By Peter Behrens Text Pub­lish­ing, 394pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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