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War trauma haunts family saga

"Plan on getting out of here," an old Jesuit urges in Peter Behrens' striking new novel, "The O'Briens."

The words are addressed to five siblings living in the Canadian backwoods -- but are meant for Joe O'Brien, the eldest at 13. For he is a boy who has already shown leadership and ingenuity in the face of adversity -- and who is captivated by the Persian rugs, English tobacco and China tea that the old Jesuit has brought with him to a rural outpost along the Ottawa River.

It is an obvious jumping-off point, for Behrens is always clear in his work -- his prose spare, his dialogue simple. His earlier novel, "The Law of Dreams," garnered major awards including the 2006 (Canadian) Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction.

"The O'Briens" is its sequel yet stands alone, spanning generations of a single family that is Irish in origin but -- after many decades in Ontario, Quebec and perhaps other provinces -- is now a Canadian family "through and through."

Orphaned in 1904, Joe sends his two sisters to a convent, takes his younger brother to the Jesuits -- and then he and his brother Grattan set out into the world, by different routes that will soon converge.

What Joe takes with him is a word, his mother's Gaelic "ashling" -- a dream, a vision. It is what the old Jesuit saw in him, an ability to see beyond, to see what the lumber must build, to see where the railroads must go, to organize the men to do the jobs.

Some early parts of the book are predictable, even heavy-handed as Iseult, a newly orphaned young woman -- who seeks "a sense of life widening, not narrowing" -- meets the burgeoning businessman Joe O'Brien, telling herself afterward, "If she never saw him again she'd not forget him."

But this is a book to cherish overall, taking us convincingly from the late 1800s -- along the Ottawa River separating Ontario from Quebec -- to the 1960s with life along the way in California, Mexico and back to Canada, the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia and, particularly, Quebec Province's French-speaking Montreal, with a second home on Butterfly Beach in Santa Barbara, Calif., that home later replaced by another, in Kennebunk, Maine.

These were days when passage, from country to country, was seamless -- and railroads across the U.S. and Canada soon made travel de rigueur. But it is two World Wars sandwiching a Depression, and all the strains and sorrows of marital and family life, that make "The O'Briens" the rich book it is, gathering steam as it goes, particularly as The Great War and then a second war changes everyone.

Joe's brother Grattan serves in the Great One, the war cutting him "loose from decent life, like a kite with a broken string." Both Joe's son Mike, and his son-in-law Johnny serve in the Second.

Joe despises war and is crushed by its ramifications for the O'Briens. A rock to many, he is also a man who fails his wife Iseult, fails his only son Mike and, at times, does what some men did in his day -- disappears to a place, usually a faraway hotel, where he will "slowly drink himself through the feeling of not belonging anywhere."

Both he and Grattan -- a dashing, restless soul who goes from adventure to adventure -- loom large here. Yet it is not characters but a family that develops in "The O'Briens" -- the greater strength found in this unbreakable unit.

Plus, events are told here mainly in sequence but with an unusual tendency to tell just so much, then move on a few years, revealing the major incidents that occur during those years only in retrospect. One would think that folly but it not only works -- it is most effective.

So is the use of truisms, in the sense that "The O'Briens" is something of a parable, relating the times through the lives of a small, related group of individuals.

"When people feared a thing, they dressed it in language to blur its shape," Joe thinks at one point. "Most things worth having, you have to take from someone else," he says at another. Then there is, "An Irishman would never be invited to join their clubs until he got so rich they couldn't ignore him" -- making us think of Joe Kennedy and the empire he built. But Joe O'Brien is no Joe Kennedy, and Iseult is no Rose (although there are parallels, among the O'Brien children, to the Kennedy offspring).

Each portion of "The O'Briens" is told from the point of view of a family member -- some of the best involving the O'Brien son and daughters. In one, Mike describes piloting a Spitfire in battle (" you feel part and parcel of the aeroplane. You don't fly it, you wear it."). In another, Frankie -- a spunky girl who can get around her father -- deals with the heart-wrenching death of a family member by donning a red dress after the funeral, and sneaking off to smoke and drink with a stranger, a soldier who saw her at the service.

"Everyone smoked now," she notes. "It was the signature of the war."

English is the language of "The O'Briens," but Behrens enhances his writing style with simple French phrases. He also has a sense, throughout, of both facts and feeling. In one, moving scene, Johnny and his now-elderly in-laws visit the O'Brien plot in Montreal:

"The ground was soft, a little muddy. Johnny thought of the bodies of SS children laid out in a row and his sergeant executing two of the very badly wounded Things were terribly green at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges. His mother-in-law held onto his arm as they followed the old man in the watery April sunshine, shoes slurring in the thick grass. Margo's father wore an overcoat and homburg and was carrying a walking stick; he was headed down a grassy row between gravestones Brown bedraggled palm leaves and lilies, leftovers from Easter week, were scattered on the ground."

This may not be the great North American novel -- but it has that wonderful old-fashioned feel of a story well-told. Plus, it has one of the best endings found anywhere in a long time.

May "The O'Briens" become the great beach read of the summer of 2012 -- best read, of course, on the near Canadian shore.

Karen Brady is a retired Buffalo News columnist.

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The O'Briens

By Peter Behrens

Pantheon

386 pages, $25.95