three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
25-Nov-Dec-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-The Law of DreamsThe Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1840s killed an estimated half a million people and dislocated a million more. The Law of Dreams, inspired by the author’s family history, puts a human face on this widespread poverty, famine, disease, and displacement. Fergus O’Brien, a teenager on a tenant farm in 1846 Ireland, witnesses the plague devastate the countryside and his ill family burn alive. The cruelty of strangers spurs a Homeric-style journey in which Fergus suffers in a workhouse, joins a band of outlaws that attacks the farm on which his father worked, joins a cattle drive to Dublin, sails to Liverpool, works the rail lines in Wales, and takes on a lover. After a perilous rediscovery of life, Fergus sets his sight on America’s great possibilities.
Steerforth. 394 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1586421174

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Law of Dreams is a fearsome story of such prolonged agony and unquenchable spirit that you can’t escape till the final page abandons you to astonished silence. … In this extraordinary novel Behrens conveys a kind of visceral comprehension of the events that only one who survived them could surpass." Ron Charles

Globe and Mail [Toronto] 4 of 5 Stars
"The Law of Dreams, a very good novel indeed, is almost hostile to supplying information about historical incidents or pop-psychology insights into any ethnic group. … The prose is frequently thrilling and always arresting." Charles Foran

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Fergus’s Atlantic crossing is one of the great set pieces in The Law of Dreams, all the more remarkable because we’ve seen it before, in almost every chronicle of the Irish diaspora. … Behrens has fashioned a beautiful idiom for his book, studded with slippery archaisms and mournful, musical refrains." James Marcus

Providence Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In this cinematic novel, Peter Behrens turns the archetypal immigrant’s journey into Homeric epic, driven by the lust for freedom, buffeted by sirens and banshees. … [Fergus is] a Melvillian Ishmael, observing and reacting, occasionally trying to do the right thing if the opportunity arises. And he’s a cryptic philosopher." Beth Taylor

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"We never come to know Fergus, his innumerable plights are never made to resonate, and though we are on his side, we wish we had a more dimensional hero to champion." Michael Leone

Critical Summary

Peter Behrens, a screenwriter and author of the story collection Night Driving, characterizes a boy surviving the Great Famine as a modern-day Odysseus (or Ishmael), driven by fate and history. Critics praised Behrens’s meticulous research; poetic, visceral prose; and period dialogue, and many commented that Fergus’s Atlantic crossing was one of the most exciting journeys they had experienced secondhand. Others, however, felt that the novel was too cinematic and melodramatic, and opinions differed on the strength of the protagonist. Either his philosophizing possessed great depth or it "read like metaphysical stage directions" (San Francisco Chronicle). Yet in its ruminations on life, death, and the lasting human spirit, The Law of Dreams successfully "illuminates one of the 19th century’s greatest tragedies and the massive migration it launched" (Washington Post).