The O’Briens is the post-diaspora saga of an Irish family in Canada. After a brief scene-setting introduction, we follow the trajectory of Joe, the eldest boy, as his stepfather torments the family, his mother dies and he takes charge of dispersing the younger children into safe havens. Two young sisters go to a cloistered convent. The little brother who wanted to become a priest goes to a Jesuit seminary and Fordham University in New York. Second brother heads for family in Chicago and Joe sets out to build the railroad and make his fortune.
Peter Behrens holds fifty years of the family’s peregrinations up to the light. Joe meets his match in Iseult, a young woman searching for a new start in Venice, California. Their lyrical courtship—attentive to the space between the words—results in a marriage that survives tragedy, the acquisition of great wealth, two devastating wars, the exposure of their personal faultlines, the forgiveness and accommodation of an enduring commitment.
The story tracks what happens to each of the siblings and to their children and children’s children. It is both epic and intimately emotional. There are passages of pure beauty as Behrens describes interior and exterior landscapes. The events of their lives are captured with such verisimilitude that they seem real, and evoke real responses. Most unusually, you can empathize with all the characters, as they experience loss, disappointment, wonder, infatuation, passion, rage, exultation and the restless anxiety that precedes, and sometimes precipitates, change.
I’m not a huge fan of family sagas but I was impressed with this one. The O’Briens are very human, recognizable, loyal, even admirable. They are each searching for meaning, trying to see with clear eyes, intending not to hurt each other. Some of the time they succeed, and you want them to. It was a worthwhile read, a reflection of the terrible mistakes and small graces that tear every family apart–and bind them together.
The O’Briens Peter Behrens | Pantheon Books 2011