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The Law of Dreams: A Novel Paperback – August 28, 2007


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Screenwriter Behrens follows his 1987 story collection, Night Driving, with an ambitious epic that follows a hapless wee lad from the rotten potato fields of 1847 Ireland to a New England horse ranch. Fergus O'Brien, the teenage son of a tenant farmer, is sent to a workhouse after his parents are murdered. He quickly escapes, joins a band of brigands and, after raiding his former landlord's farm, drifts to Dublin and then to Liverpool, where he is primed to work as a "pearl boy" (read: male prostitute). He hits the road again, this time settling in Wales, where he works on a rail line and meets Red Molly, a married woman who becomes his lover and traveling companion to America, where he plans to become a horse trader. The book veers dangerously close to melodrama on more than a few occasions, and Fergus, for all the contretemps encountered and indignities suffered, remains thin and unconvincing as a narrator. But readers may be able to overlook Behrens's authorial missteps and enjoy the sprawling, cinematically rendered immigrant story. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

Behrens's impressive, swiftly paced saga tracks the life of an Irish boy after his family dies during the Great Potato Famine. Fifteen-year-old Fergus O'Brien takes up with a group of child bandits in Limerick, then makes his way to North Wales, where he works as a "tip boy" (a dangerous job that involves emptying carts of earth being cleared for the railroads). By the time he sets sail for Canada, hoping to make a living as a horse dealer, it is hard to believe that only a year has passed, such is the variety of his experience. 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.
Copyright © 2006 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (August 28, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812978005
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812978001
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #511,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

51 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Philip Koplin on September 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover
History and biography are already stories, so why bother with historical fiction and additional layers of make-believe? In The Law of Dreams, Peter Behrens shows why. The book centers on a young 19th-century Irishman, Fergus O'Brien, who is driven by circumstance, some imposed and some of his own making, first to England and then America. In James Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus sees history as a nightmare from which he is trying to awaken; half a century earlier, the hero of Behrens' odyssey lives the Irish nightmare of famine and exploitation. Fergus can't escape from history; the best he, or indeed anyone, can do is to follow the "law of dreams": keep moving, in the hope of creating space for possibility and further dreams. Life teaches Fergus all too well that dreams can turn into nightmares, but its hard lessons never extinguish the spirit that drives him forward, or at least onward. Behrens shows, through language that is sometimes brutally poetic and a narrative drive that is always strongly focused, how the forces of history intersect with the contingencies of everyday life to forge our selves and our destinies. A history that is both remotely of the past and ever-present in the products of that past is brought to life through events and characters that are deeply imagined and richly described. My sole disappointment is that this is Behrens' first novel, so I'll be denied the pleasure of paging through his backlist. At least I have the consolation of having discovered a major writer and realizing that historical fiction can treat significant areas of human experience in ways that its more academic relatives aren't equipped to approach.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Margaret Bullitt-Jonas on June 3, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I read this book at a gallop. The language is spare, brisk, and sometimes achingly beautiful. The world that Peter Behrens evokes is a brutal place, full of accident and malice, loss and longing, and endlessly surprising. To what lengths will human beings go in order to survive? Can interpersonal relationships be trusted, or is each person essentially alone? What do we lose or gain when we try to leave the past behind? What combination of information and sheer desire allows -- even impels -- us to look to the future with hope? These are some of the questions that the novel raises as Fergus, its central protagonist, struggles to save not only his physical life but also the life of his soul -- his integrity and his capacity for kindness.

There is only one thing that bothered me about The Law of Dreams: now that I've finished it, I don't know what to read next. Most other novels seem limp by comparison. Thank you, Peter Behrens, for a fabulous book.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By witchylady on September 6, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The Law of Dreams is an astonishing excavation of both human vulnerability and resilience. Whether you give a rotten potato for historical fiction, or Irish history, or not, Fergus's story will compel you to keep on with it. The genius of it lies in the author's gift for blending traditional, familiar storytelling with a starker more modern but no less lyrical voice you've never heard before. His characters speak like no others and though a muscular novel, it moves inexorably towards its finish with the lean telling of a short story. Indeed, Peter Behrens is able to bring together seemingly disparate styles of storytelling -- ancient and modern, language-drunk and spare -- and the final effect is one of enduring beauty and relevance. The book tells an archetypal and epic story but perhaps its best bits lie in the dark corners that Behrens illuminates with his particular gift for immediate, sensory detail. While the story is loaded with cinematic action and peopled with a huge cast of characters, private, interior moments of melancholy are equally recognized within the great scope of the author's abilities.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Maureen Ogle on April 3, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is one of the most extraordinary books I've read in years. I'd never heard of him until recently: he has a new novel and it sounded good, so I decided to read this one first.

Wow. I've never read anything that conveyed the sense of "the past" as brilliantly, or as richly, and "realistically" as this novel. The plot itself is worth the price of admission, but his prose is lush and rich and, as important, reflects the effort he made to be historically accurate.

HIGHLY recommended.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Richard Pittman on August 29, 2009
Format: Paperback
The Law of Dreams is a very plot driven book. It moves linearly, the prose is economic and it's a very quick read. I enjoyed it.

It is the story of Fergus O'Brien and follows his life from his beginnings as a dirt poor Irish boy driven away from home by famine. He meets an assortment of harsh characters who are typically desperate and self interested. Some of the characters surprise with their kindness. He moves from his family dwelling to living on the road with a young and desperate gang of boys to a whorehouse in Liverpool to working on the railway in Wales to a ship bound for Canada.

This novel could easily be adapted for a film and does proceed a bit like a film.

In all, I liked it but it's a little light on the implications of the human struggle in favor of plot progression.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Karl Berger on September 24, 2007
Format: Paperback
The first part of the book --the one dealing with Fergus's stay on land begins with one of the best written chapters of any literature I know. This is a bare language that uses ancient gallic words. Brief sentences that cut and hurt and slice. My problem arose when I did not find the hero likable and when the language--mostly in the second part on ship--veers too often into dialogue. Believe me you will find the best language ever written in the first hundred pages of the book.
Karl Berger M.D.
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