In a way, I think I've been waiting for The Law of Dreams. It's that kind of book that fills up a void: the missing space after I finished reading Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, another sweeping epic of a book that changed me when I closed the cover. These are stories that stay with you. These are the books meant to be read. These are the ones that you add to life lists.
The Law of Dreams won the GG in 2006, rightfully. It's a story about the Irish Famine, but like Let the Great World Spin, the event itself serves as a backdrop, as an impetus, for the novel's protagonist, Fergus, to step out into the world. He doesn't really have any choice. The famine has devastated his way of life -- tenant farmers on a large estate, a roaming father comes home the minute the potatoes turn up black, refuses to leave, and months later, families all across Ireland are destitute, starving, and forced out into the world to not only find a fortune, but to survive.
Once Fergus leaves as his house burns, he joins a rag-tag group of children who beg, steal, and even much worse until one tragic event forces him to leave this second family behind. This pattern continues for the poor boy. He travels, works for a bit, finds a subtle sense of stability until the moment when an act of unprecedented violence forces him in yet another direction. He works the rails for a time to earn enough money for passage to Canada. He barely survives the passage. He manages to set foot on Canadian soil but that doesn't mean Fergus remains headed for a happy ending. These pedestrian, modern concerns, a quest for happiness in a world where the basics of life are taken for granted, well, that's just not what's on his mind.
Behrens writes, "Sometimes your heart cracks and tells you what to do." Throughout this entire story, Fergus follows his heart, often to his detriment, all the way to Grosse Île, where one utterly heartbreaking moment changes his course yet once again. It's Homeric, this odyssey, and this young man grows up in a way that the traditional sense of a buldingsroman can't encompass. There's no artifice to this story but that's not to say Behrens use of language and form isn't beautiful, it is, but it's not hiding anything either. There's a plainness to his observations that cuts right to the essence of human nature, of suffering, and of the need to consistently make decisions under excruciatingly hard circumstances.
Epic yet understated, rough yet delicate, honest yet heart wrenching, The Law of Dreams was one of the best books I've read in a long, long time. Highly, highly recommended.
READING CHALLENGES: I'm not at all sure where I am in this year's Canadian Book Challenge. I'm going to try to figure that out by the end of the year. But this book fits the bill and I'm counting it, hoping that it'll inspire others to pick it up.