The Law of Dreams

Winner of the 2006 Governor General's Award

The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens

The Law of Dreams tells the story of a young man's Homeric passage from innocence to experience during the Irish Famine of 1847. Peter Behrens transports the reader to another time and place for a resonant, unforgettable 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.


Absorbing, unsparing and beautifully written . . . a masterly novel. —The New York Times Book Review

The prose is frequently thrilling and always arresting. It is also unsparing in its determination to distil both the precise eternals of a moment and the fierce interiority of the human mind. The dialogue, too, seems to emerge from the mouths of characters who, though well represented in the pages of similar novels, have never been allowed to talk this way before. —Globe & Mail (Toronto)

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. —Washington Post Book World

When I opened Peter Behrens's "The Law of Dreams," last month, I thought, Oy vey, not another bleak, depressing, potato-famine, Irish-persecution, struggling-immigrant story. But I wound up loving this novel. The storytelling is terrific, the writing lyrical, often startling. —The New Yorker Online

One of the many fine things about Peter Behrens' stunningly lyric first novel, "The Law of Dreams," is that it is emphatically a story of that "great hunger," a work of richly empathetic imagination that reminds us once again of how powerful historical fiction can be in skilled hands. —Los Angeles Times

. . . it is one of those rare books that comes along from time to time that makes you feel that you are in the presence of greatness: a gifted storyteller with a truly compelling story to tell. —Irish Sunday Independent

This is a top-notch historical novel: dramatic, wincingly violent, tender and extremely well-written. —Guardian (London)

Behrens's realism is unrelenting but from it he wrings a harsh beauty. The poetry, as Wilfred Owen said of his Great War verse, is in the pity. Behrens is an alchemist. He turns hardships and horror stories into gold. —Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald

. . . 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

Behrens has fashioned a beautiful idiom for his book, studded with slippery archaisms and mournful musical refrains . . . the language and the things he 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. —Newsday

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. —Historical Novel Society

. . . There are passages of idyllic beauty, and a strange hard poetry of language; for example when landscapes are described, or the consciousness of a lost boy longing for love and connection . . . Behrens upholds the tension all the way through this voluminous, voluptuous page-turner of a novel. . . . In Brigitte Walitzek he found a German translator to match his epic tone. —Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Peter Behrens succeeds, all the way through this novel, in maintaining a rythmn, an incantatory lyricism, and in sharing with us his compassion and respect for a boy hero who, hardened by his trials, becomes a man without illusions, a man resolved. —Le Monde Figaro Littéraire (Paris)

This writer has an extraordinary storytelling gift, which reminds me at the same time of the rhythms of Emile Zola's L'Assommoir and the terrifying urgency of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I have to use such extraordinary and extravagant comparisons to give some idea of Peter Behrens' style. It grabs you by the throat and won't let you go for 569 pages . . . —Le Magazine des Livres (Paris)

Comment expliquer la force de ce livre, sa façon d'avancer, telle  une locomotive emballée? Est-ce parce qu'il raconte la lutte  quotidienne d'un jeune homme pour survivre? Une fois embarqué à bord de "La Loi des rêves", vous ne pourrez plus en descendre. [. . .] Il règne ici une urgence, une volonté d'aller de l'avant,  qui est celle que l'on éprouve parfois dans les rêves. Un climat  onirique où l'on croise un cheval blanc, une vierge foudroyée, un  tambour éventré, et qui confère à ce livre formidable la puissance  d'une fable. —Elle magazine (France edition)

Premier roman de Peter Behrens, La Loi des rêves déroule l'itinéraire de Fergus, qui du jour où il perd sa famille—lors de la famine irlandaise de 1846—entame un périple ininterrompu, des tourbières de son pays natal jusqu'à Liverpool, et de là jusqu'au Québec. Voyage géographique et initiatique, cette traversée contée avec souffle est aussi un beau récit des origines : celles de l'Amérique et de ses pionniers prêts à tout pour donner corps à leurs espoirs, mais aussi celles de Peter Behrens, qui s'est inspiré du parcours de son grand-père pour brosser celui d'un héros profondément attachant, dont l'énergie rentrée et l'endurance obstinée forcent le respect. Porté par une langue aux images puissantes, ce roman donne à voir un monde où la poésie du regard et la violence des faits tantôt s'opposent, tantôt s'épousent. En dépit des deuils, des drames, des trahisons de ceux qui lui sont chers, Fergus ne renonce jamais, toujours prêt à reprendre la route—car telle est -- la loi des rêves : rester en mouvement —Magazine Littèraire (Paris)

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

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

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

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

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


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