The Law of Dreams tells the story of a young man's epic passage from innocence to experience during The Great Famine in Ireland of 1847.
On his odyssey through Ireland and Britain, and across the Atlantic to “the Boston states,” Fergus is initiated to violence, sexual heat, and the glories and dangers of the industrial revolution. Along the way, he meets an unforgettable generation of boy soldiers, brigands, street toughs and charming, willful girls – all struggling for survival in the aftermath of natural catastrophe magnified by political callousness and brutal neglect.
Peter Behrens transports the reader to another time and place for a deeply-moving and resonant experience. The Law of Dreams is gorgeously written in incandescent language that unleashes the sexual and psychological energies of a lost world while plunging the reader directly into a vein of history that haunts the ancestral memory of millions in a new millennium.
About the Author
Peter Behrens' short stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, Saturday Night, and The National Post and have been anthologized in Best Canadian Stories and Best Canadian Essays. He is the author of a collection of short stories, Night Driving (Macmillan). Behrens was a Fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and held a prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. He was born in Montreal and lives on the coast of Maine with his wife and son.
"A fabulous book - makes history real enough to smell and so powerful in its emotional impact that I had to remind myself to breathe. This is the past, but made almost frighteningly present."
- Kate Grenville
"Behrens writes about the famine and its consequences as if he were an eyewitness. 'The Law of Dreams' is absorbing, unsparing and beautifully written. . . . His writing is seamless, and often gorgeous. He is adroit at creating indelible characters in a few deft strokes. . . . What Behrens knows, what he teaches us again in this masterly novel, is that the past was indeed wondrous, and terrible and strange, but that it was a very real place." — The New York Times Book Review
Winner of The Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction (Canada's Top Literary Prize)
"Any novelist must write with a sense of urgency, an ability to convince us that he understands his characters and knows what they are going through. This is especially true, I think, when dealing with a historical incident that has been largely forgotten or even become something of a punch line, as the famine has.
The Law of Dreams is a superb novel, and Behrens does a great job of putting one right in the midst of the horror that the famine actually was."
— Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley & Dreamland
"The Law of Dreams rings with a strange, hard poetry, a mingling of Behrens's rich narrative voice and scraps of startling wisdom that seem to emanate directly from Fergus's mind. Here he is in Liverpool, outside a pub, starving and barefoot, as always: 'Trying to make up his mind, he hopped restlessly from one foot to another, one coin in each fist. The door opened and [a] pack of thick-shouldered men came out, and he caught a tantalizing whiff of the smoky, meaty atmosphere within. You could stand outside, bootless and chewing fear like a baby; or take the bold plunge. Offer a coin for a feed and see if they would take it. The world, latent; a gun loaded with chance and mistakes.' In the life of this determined young man, Behrens illuminates one of the 19th century's greatest tragedies and the massive migration it launched. A novel that animates the past this vibrantly should make volumes of mere history blush. 'Life burns hot,' Fergus thinks, and so do these pages. "
"Peter Behrens' debut novel reminds me of the great concluding line in William Butler Yeats' epic poem Easter 1916: 'A Terrible Beauty is Born.' . . . His law of dreams is to keep moving. Readers will keep reading." — USA Today
"All history is story and in The Law of Dreams Peter Behrens takes us into the hearts of savages, rapacious English landlords posing as gentlemen in Ireland, and shows us how the failure of one simple crop, the potato, led to the deaths, the despair and the diaspora of millions of poor Irish. Behrens is a superb storyteller and a brilliant teacher who never lets on that he is teaching us.
This book is a beautifully written, poetically inspired tale of heroism, love, yes and sex, and the triumph of the human spirit over murderous greed. It's a long road that Behrens makes shorter with many a surprising turn. The Law of Dreams is one great book. I stayed up into the wee hours to finish it. I envy you this journey."
— Malachy McCourt, author of A Monk Swimming
"One of the many fine things about Peter Behrens' stunningly lyrical first novel, 'The Law of Dreams', is that it is emphatically a story of that 'great hunger', a work of richly empahtietic imagination that reminds us once again of how powerful historical fiction can be in skilled hands. In fact, the story has a factual and emotional authenticity that calls to mind the similarly masterful debut Thomas Flanagan made with his now classic novel of Irish history, 'The Year of the French.'. . . . Behrens' is the definitive story of the nearly 2 million who went into exile, setting in motion the Irish diaspora that has continued until recent years. . . . One of the novel's strengths is the sharp and knowing way the author quickly but convincingly sketches in the inescapable predicaments of these characters. . . . Behrens is an unobtrusively elegant stylist; one of the great satisfactions of this book is the way in which [the protagonist] Fergus' inner consideration of his tormented journey distills itself aphoristically, as in this reflection: 'Betrayal tastes cold on the tongue, but you don't feel it so much, right at first; you're trying to pull yourself inside.'"
—Los Angeles Times
"The Law of Dreams is the best literary adventure novel I've read since Lonesome Dove. Impelled by his great dream, Peter Behrens' young Irish hero survives the potato famine of 1847, an all-out war with his landlord, the brutalities of life on the tramp, a railroad encampment, nineteenth-century Liverpool, and the perils of an Atlantic crossing, to immigrate to North America. What a splendid tale! The Law of Dreams is a brilliant, heart-felt celebration of the capacity of the human spirit, fueled by hope, to prevail in the face of the worst life can offer."
— Howard Frank Mosher
"I was amazed and moved by Peter Behrens's The Law of Dreams. Behrens restores to anonymous victims of the Irish famine the density, complexity and dignity of their individual existences. His unsparing account of their struggle for survival teems with insight and truth. His storytelling is devoid of false sentiment. The characters are so real they seem ready to walk off the page. Haunting and heartbreaking, The Law of Dreams sweeps the reader along with the urgency, immediacy and poetry of its narrative force. This is historical fiction at its very finest."
— Peter Quinn, author of Banished Children of Eve
"Blending excruciating detail with the hopefulness of beauty, THE LAW OF DREAMS is a novel of struggle and fulfillment; of trust and the hollowness of betrayal. From a mountaintop in Ireland to the beckoning promise of America there are scenes that will remain, forever, imprinted upon the reader's mind. Peter Behrens is a tremendously talented writer."
— Alistair MacLeod, author of No Great Mischief
"The Law of Dreams lowers a tape recorder into the pit of history. All that was lost, everything we've forgotten, is suddenly restored. The research is prodigious, the story is epic, the structure is bold, and the ancient language is something new and wondrous to our ears."
— Clark Blaise, author of Time Lord
"I've been lost in the world of this book since page two, and am deeply sorry to have reached the end. The story is beautifully made. The writing is stunning, like nothing you've read before except itself. Wow."
— Beth Gutcheon, author of More than You Know
"A portrait of desire rendered in darkly lyric tones. Peter Behrens is a highly gifted conjurer; the past he evokes is as mythic as it is historic, as seductive as it is nightmarishly, gorgeously real."
— Heidi Julavits
"Peter Behrens' superb THE LAW OF DREAMS is an emotional epic done in shadow-show, a lucid dream of the past, bearing echoes of Melville and Ondaatje, conveying scents and shimmers of a vanished world under the skin of our own."
— Jonathan Lethem
"This first novel, which traces a young man's journey from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine of 1847 to the "Boston States," resonates well beyond screenwriter Behrens's New England and got a lot of buzz at BEA. Paul Ingram, buyer at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa, calls it "as moving and rich a tale of a people in dire straits as I've read." Other booksellers have been drawn to the language, which Michael Katzenberg, owner of Bear Pond Books in Stowe, Vt., finds reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. Behrens's East Coast tour will kick off in August with an event with Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon at Blue Hill Books in Blue Hill, Maine. A West Coast tour is scheduled for January and February. Random House has picked up paperback rights."
—Publishers Weekly, Indie Surprises for Fall
Life burns hot in The Law of Dreams, an exceptional novel about a young man's struggle for survival during the Irish potato famine. Fergus O'Brien knows only the mountain wastes when the potato blight strikes. Threatened with eviction, the O'Briens stay put - until their death by black fever. Fergus survives and is sent to the workhouse, which he soon escapes. He is hijacked by thieves, has a last confrontation with his landlord, and then falls in with cattle drovers on their way to Dublin. There, among the starving crowds, he takes a boat to Limerick, where more trouble awaits. Hungry and battered, he yearns for an existence free of regrets, and a life that is more than a battle for survival. With a little luck and the help of an Irish gypsy girl, he gathers enough coin to pay for passage on a timber ship to Canada. The "law of dreams," he comes to learn, is always to keep moving.
It is hard to believe that this book is Peter Behrens's first novel. With the sparest of language, the author depicts the internal struggles of a good-hearted young man in the midst of the unthinkable; a man who learns he must suppress terrible memories in order to move forward; a man who despite all his troubles, still believes in the possibility of a full and passionate life. A moving achievement, The Law of Dreams is a book for the keeper shelf.
— Lisa Ann Verge, Historical Novel Society
"Inspired by his own family history, Behrens has fashioned a paean to the strength of the human spirit that illuminates a piece of history. The law of dreams is to keep moving, and that's what Fergus does, taking advantage of opportunities even as he is haunted by dreams and hurt by betrayal. Behrens tells this story in spare prose that distills ideas to their essence, making this absorbing historical fiction."
"Fergus' 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 spares nothing when it comes to the dread and discomfort of the passage. At the same time, the details of shipboard life - say, a sailor high in the rigging- strike Fergus as portents of liberation: "He'd rather be living up there, in the high, than down below in the hold. All his life he had lived in holes of one sort or another; cabins made of stones and turf; scalpeens made of sticks, shanties, steerage holds. Burrows smelling of earth and bodies." Will America offer him an escape from this burrow, which is also the downward tug of death and memory? Will the New World transform him? The answer is twofold. Fergus does lose his innocence, what little there is left of it. For a dizzying moment his very appetite for experience seems on the verge of disappearing: "I have eaten too much of the world. I am not hungry no more." In the end, though, the law of dreams will not relinquish him. He must keep moving. Happily, this mandate of eternal motion applies to the author as well. He never lets his story go slack, never lets it eddy on the margins for more than a page or two. Then Fergus is carried along once again. This is not a matter of streamlined minimalism: No, Behrens has fashioned a beautiful idiom for his book, studded with slippery archaisms and mournful, musical refrains.... The language and the things it describes seem to be spun out of a single material. And we move through it as willingly, or compulsively, as the protagonist, the wind of love and hate at our backs."
" You will lose yourself in this epic tale of one man's journey from a famine-stricken Ireland of the 1840's to a new life in the new world. This saga of the travels of Fergus O'Brien is thrillingly and lyrically told. A must-read in the literature of the Irish migration to America."
— Harry Schwartz Bookshop
"...If the novel were judged solely on the language, precise and poetic in a way that cuts into the heart like a razor, no one could deny Behrens' brilliance. But for those readers sometimes left a little cold by the technical virtuosity of lyrical Canadian novelists like Anne Michaels or Michael Ondaatje, it's worth pointing out that Behrens can also spin a wild yarn. The Law of Dreams is a novel with as much craft as art, an adventure tale as epic and gripping as a modern Dickens..."
— Montreal Mirror
"Behrens’s impressive, swiftly paced saga tracks the life of an Irish boy after his family dies during the Great Potato Famine.... In scope and subject, Behrens’s work recalls Liam O’Flaherty’s epic novel “Famine”; both writers have a stark style admirably suited to conveying the horrors of starvation and despair. But Behrens’s language also has a visceral rhythm, and his similes meld the humble with the lyrical: whales rise “hissing” in a river, light “stutters” off an iron roof."
— The New Yorker
Peter Behrens's historical novel about the 19th century Irish potato famine, has left critics grasping for words to convey what makes it such an astonishing piece of work. Beautifully written, [and] more adventure story than melodrama.
— The Santa Barbara Independent