Peter Behrens’ novel, The Law of Dreams is a pungent and enthralling read of brilliant character. Behrens traces the life of a young boy from a farm in Ireland at the beginning of the potato famine, to the booming railways of England, and finally to his landing in Montreal.
Behrens brings to life human emotion believed barren in Irish wastelands and gritty English cities.
Behrens vivifies themes as evasive as love, while reviving raw sexuality and the animal-like hunger and euphoria humans can share. The Law of Dreams draws readers into the sickening depths of industrial world poverty while offering the hope that children can find in their own curiosity and conscious kindness despite murder, hunger, fever, death and loss.
A six-foot black rock and an Irish heritage inspired Behrens’ novel. Behrens, who grew up in Montreal, used to go on long drives with his grandfather, often passing a black rock situated in Griffintown in Montreal, near the Victoria bridge .
The rock now protects the graveyards of thousands of Irish immigrants killed by typhus.
“My grandfather would drive me by this place when I was a little kid and , at the time, it wasn’t even a park – just a black rock under an entrance ramp to the expressway. I don’t remember him saying anything, but I just remember feeling something intense radiating from him, and that [the black rock] was something of a dark place, some kind of shameful memory and suffering . And I think I picked that up somehow. I remember feeling the power of that place.”
Although Behrens visited Ireland to interview numerous Irish historical writers and to research the Irish Famine, The Law of Dreams is less a historical novel than it is a representation of human emotion.
“Its funny, people say it’s a book about the famine and I say, ‘It’s not, it’s not!’ It’s a book about love, sex, death, sunlight, various kinds of occasional joys, and various kinds of hunger,” Behrens said.
The Law of Dreams is written from the perspective of the main character, Fergus.
“It’s all from his point of view [.]. We never get outside what he knows, and he doesn’t know a heck of a lot of things. Fergus doesn’t know, for example, that he’s operating in a historical environment that will be called the ‘Irish Famine’. He barely knows that he lives in a country called Ireland. He has very vague ideas of where America is. He doesn’t know a heck of a lot but what he knows, he knows quite intensely.”
Behrens, through Fergus’s simple appreciation of life, creates a near-poetic recitation of emotion. He opens his readers to the most humane experiences.
“He [Fergus] is very open to sensual experiences of all kinds ; some sexual but also the way light looks and the way the ground smells. He’s a country boy and he sort of discovers – without having a sort of philosophy or sense of ethics like that organized in his mind – [.] through a series of incidents, how he feels and what his beliefs are.”
To Behrens, The Law of Dreams, is not meant to be a historical novel.
“I didn’t want it to teach me a lesson about history, and get expository. I just wanted to deliver a raw experience.”
For Behrens, satisfaction comes from the appreciation of his readers.
“Often I find that people come up to me and they are often shy people not used to [approaching people] so you know what they say they mean. they say, intensely and passionately, what an experience reading [this] book was for them. I’ve heard it often enough to believe it and it’s gratifying and fun to hear that their wives are angry because they’ve spent the past three nights reading it.”
The Law of Dreams has also had an overwhelming success internationally with Italian, French, Dutch and German language rights and publication across the U.K. and Australia.
Behrens, who spent ten years writing The Law of Dreams, has started a new novel about a young man graduating from Loyola College, the old Irish-Catholic school where Concordia University now sits. The book is set partially in Westmount and NDG in Montreal, and partly in North-West Germany between 1944 and 1945.