Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Law of Dreams

Peter Behrens was reading at Volume II Books last night, a day after the nominations for the 2007 Governor General's Literary Awards were announced. Behrens, of course, was the surprise winner of the 2006 Award for Fiction for his novel The Law of Dreams. The betting was on Rawi Hage's novel De Niro's Game, given that Hage was also nominated for the Giller - and who is this Peter Behrens fellow anyway?

There was groaning heard across the land when Behrens won, but perhaps it was just my own complaining. Another earnest historical novel about hard times in ye olde Canada? The potato famine? The trials of emigration? C'mon, can't prize juries make even a little attempt to reward the Canadian writers trying to record contemporary urban life in Canada? You know - the lives we're living in Canada, in cities, today?

And then I read it.

Reluctantly, at the behest of someone I trusted, I read it. And it didn't take much beyond the first page to draw me into one of the best reads of 2006 for me. If you tend to roll your eyes when someone tells you about the great historical novel they read, as I do, I urge you to defy your natural impulse and to give The Law of Dreams a try.

Behrens' writing is dazzling, with particular images that have remained in my mind like those showstoppers in Ondaatje. The key for me is the compelling main character, Fergus, who learns to live by the 'law of dreams': keep moving. Strangely, given its famine setting and the horrific events Fergus endures, the book is not depressing. British writer Nicci Gerrard puts it well in a piece in The Observer gathering underrated books:
Though this hauntingly bloody and beautiful novel has been garlanded with praise and prizes in Behrens's native Canada, here its reception has been weirdly muted. Set in the potato famine in Ireland in 1847, the transport ship to Canada and finally Montreal, it tells the story of the young man Fergus's journey through horror, violence, and degrading poverty - but in spite of its picaresque telling of unimaginable catastrophe and scorching disaster, the novel is neither melodramatic nor depressing. Rather, there's a euphoric uplift in its pages, a poetic energy in the style which completely bowled me over. Such a messy, delirious, risky, big-hearted book; such a treat.


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