Monday, July 11, 2011

THE O'BRIENS by Peter Behrens (2011) House of Anansi Press, 548 pages

In this sprawling Irish family saga that spans six decades from 1900-1960 you will meet a symphony of voices from the ambitious and resourceful patriarch Joe O'Brien to his philanthropically-minded photographer wife Iseult to Joe's brothers Grattan (an ace pilot) and Tom (a priest) to Joe and Iseult's passionate children Mike, Margo and Frankie and you will feel party to their dark secrets, private agonies and dreams.

The epigraph, a poem by established Irish poet Nuala NiDhomhnaill, is Joe's emotional touchstone:

The storm came
blew with force,
I heard your voice
calling me through thunder.

From the time Joe assumes the role of man of the house when he's only thirteen to the time he navigates himself safely to the Cape Breton shoreline through the calls of his granddaughter Madeleine, he relies on the people he loves best to moor him through storms literal and figurative and there are plenty of both.

Raised in poverty in rural Quebec in the late 19th century, Joe and his siblings accept the kindness of the local parish priest, Fr. Lillis, who "knew he had to help them all, so he began inviting the whole bunch to stop at his house after school for lessons in geometry, table manners, and German... And he taught them the waltz... What he was trying to teach was courage." When news reaches Mrs. O'Brien of her absent husband's accidental death in South Africa, "Joe understood that his father had left his power behind, and that he, as eldest son, had inherited it... He would use it to protect them all." And, protect them he does, though years after he has trusted his sisters Hope and Kate to a convent where they had taken their vows as Soeur Marie-Bernadette and Soeur Marie-Emmanuelle, Joe worries that "in his greed and hurry to escape and seek his own freedom, they were the ones who had paid the price."

While Joe O'Brien is making a name for himself with railroad contracts, Iseult Wilkins is reconciling herself to a new beginning as a recent adult orphan. She decides to move to Venice Beach, California and it is there in the realty office that she meets Joe's younger brother Grattan and "felt her cheeks flushing with thoughts that weren't words, just burrs of feeling, inchoate, startling." In the little Linnie cottage that she decides to purchase with her inheritance, Iseult resolves "she might find clarity and calm, she might find her own purpose." Amid that clarity and calm appears Grattan's older brother Joe, who courts Iseult with fresh flowers and letters in a whirlwind 5-week romance that leads to their marriage about which Iseult believes is " a road, not the place where the road stopped."

In the years of the Great War, there are letters from the Front from Grattan with such vivid and unfiltered detail that it feels almost prurient to be reading them. Joe and Iseult's son Michael is born in early 1914 and he's joined by a little sister Margo, two years later. The family has settled in Montreal in a massive stone home on Pine Street from which Joe continues to oversee his burgeoning business empire and Iseult begins to involve herself in philanthropic work with poor single mothers and their children. There are some trying moments after the war, especially for Grattan, who has a difficult time readjusting to married life with his wife Elise and their daughter Virginia.

When another war appears unavoidable it is the next generation of young men who enlist, Joe's son Mike and his son-in-law Johnny, both of whom write honest, heart-breaking letters home to their families about the kill or be killed nature of life on that Front. In those years, Frankie, Iseult and Joe's youngest daughter, confesses that "doorbell dread was like a sliver of ice entering the intestinal tract." All families feared that knock on the door that portended the loss of a loved one.

Next to his younger brothers Tom and Grattan, over the years "it was as if Joe had taken the weight of his family onto his shoulders and it had shortened, thickened and bent him." Fiercely loyal, but emotionally complicated, Joe O'Brien remains enigmatic throughout the novel; yet, it is the puzzling out of his character that drives the narrative and kept me flipping through right through to its satisfying denouement, anticipated way back in the epigraph. For, in the end, Joe realizes that "All his life he'd needed their voices--outside himself, bright and alive, to take a bearing on, to find his way." In the symphony of voices that Behrens has created in THE O'BRIENS, you, too, will find your way.

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