‘The Law of Dreams’ by Peter Behrens

2006, 394 p.

This book was awarded the Canadian Governor-Generals Literary Award for Fiction, and I suspect that much of its appeal lay in the same sentiment that gave such acclaim to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. here in Australia.  Both books are based on a family ancestor, and in both cases there was an emigration to a settler colony.  In both books, much of the story centred on the character actually reaching the new colony rather than what happened once they arrived-  although less so in Grenville’s book.

The Law of Dreams traces Fergus, a young boy orphaned through the Irish potato famine, and made homeless by the eviction of the tenant farmers by the farm overseer.  He is sent to a workhouse, joins a gang of young marauding bandits, leaves for Liverpool, works as a navvy with tip ponies building railways and eventually leaves for America.  The law of dreams is to ‘keep moving’, and this long odyssey is almost dream-like in its telling.  The scenes in the famine are described in a rather detached fashion; people move into the slipstream of the story and then fall away quickly and the impetus is to keep going, keep going.

I suspect that there’s a sort of writerly hazard in choosing to use one of your forebears as the main character in your novel.  Perhaps there’s an inner imperative to remain true to the bare bones of the story- the ‘what REALLY happeneds’- and I think this limits the character development to a certain extent.

Peter Behrens, it seems, is a screenwriter, and I think this shows in the book.  The book is divided into several parts as the setting for the novel switches from place to place, and within each part there are many short chapters of two to three pages.  To me, this reflects very much a screenwriter’s view where the camera-shot and cutaway can do the narrative leg work in shifting time and place.  In a novel, though, I think it’s taking the easy way out to just start another chapter without having to narratively take characters and action from one place to another.

This aside though, the journey was a compelling one and the book is well worth reading.

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