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The O'Briens

By Peter Behrens

Anansi Press, 552 pages, $33

PETER Behrens' lengthy followup novel to his Governor General's Award-winning The Law of Dreams is an epic tale of family relationships and struggles.

The Law of Dreams, Behrens' 2006 debut, chronicled the deprivation of the Irish potato famine and the rush of Irish immigrants into North America. The novel centred on the character of Fergus O'Brien, based on Montreal-born Behrens' own Irish ancestor.

The O'Briens is again based on real-life figures and takes up the story of Fergus's descendants living in Pontiac County, Que., in the late 1880s.

The family patriarch is the oldest brother, Joe, who supports the family by chopping down and then selling cords of firewood. He has such an eye for business that he soon manages to turn this endeavor into a logging company and makes some serious money. After his mother dies, Joe leads his brothers into confronting their abusive stepfather and finds better opportunities for him and his siblings outside Quebec. The family is split up and Joe heads for Chicago.

The opening sections paint a vivid and convincing picture of the Quebec wilderness and the struggle needed to survive. The first few scenes feel familiar, not unlike something from Frank McCourt's 1996 memoir Angela's Ashes or even The Law of Dreams, but once Joe heads for the city the novel takes on a stride all its own.

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Joe O'Brien may occupy the crux of the story, though other characters are just as richly detailed. We're introduced to Iseult in California, who will soon become Joe's wife. After growing up as a sickly, asthmatic child, she struggles to assert her own independence and strike out on her own.

Joe's brother Grattan becomes a famous First World War fighter pilot and then a bootlegger. Eventually, Joe's son also becomes a skilled fighter pilot during the Second World War.

The scope of the novel is epic, managing to touch on life in backwoods Quebec, the Canadian railroad boom, prohibition, bootlegging and both world wars. These grand bits of history are present in the lives of Behrens' characters, but Joe, his family and their relationships remain the focal point.

This is a testament to Behrens' skill, He manages to keep us connected to the struggles of the O'Brien family when the outside world is passing by on such a grand scale.

The novel is also extremely long and at times there is little narrative drive compelling the reader to find out where the story is heading. Behrens navigates the lives of the O'Brien's from 1887 to 1960 and, as is to be expected, not all periods of that time are given the same amount of attention.

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Just as we become invested in one character or one event, the novel will jump ahead in time or switch to another character's point of view.

Behrens has opted for an enjoyable, relaxed pace rather than pushing readers too briskly through more than 500 pages and choosing events that will allow characters to shine through instead of historic set pieces.

The novel is wonderfully written; even harsh truths come forth in strangely lovely images. The closing scene is both harrowing and touching, a great metaphor for Joe's need for the family relationships that fuel the entire novel. "All his life he'd needed their voices -- outside himself, bright and alive, to take a bearing on, to find his way," Behrens writes.

Brimming with complex and nuanced characters, Behrens's second novel lives up to the expectations set by his award-winning debut.

Keith Cadieux is writer-in-residence at Aqua Books in Winnipeg until the end of August.