The O’Briens by Peter Behrens follows the life of Joe O’Brien and his family before the backdrop of the 20th Century’s most historical moments–both World Wars, and the construction of the Canadian Railway. At the centre is the relationship between Joe and Iseult that is at once heartbreaking, lovely, romantic and tragic. This novel is epic in scope and intimate in human understanding.
Desperate to escape his life in Pontiac County, Quebec, Joe breaks away from his oppressive Catholic background and starts life anew. He goes on a quest to become successful and to find his one true love which he finds in Iseult. She is artistic, someone who sees the world from behind a camera, keenly perceptive and aware. It is apparent that Joe, not without his indiscretions, seems to unconditionally love Iseult, but she finds herself asking “what does love mean really.” Years later after losing two of her children, shrouded in sadness, she says she wishes she had never met Joe, had never had children, and describes their life together as a combination of “hard work, success, and suffering.” She likens his occupation in her life to that of an army.
The war is personified extensively in this novel. It is a criminal coming to steal the young men, puncture their spirit and cause irrevocable damage. Iseult, having felt the effects of war from the safety of her home, feels that “swollen war had been making her ill and weak.” Like the World Wars that are going on around them, they too are enduring their own personal war: the death of two children; Joe’s alcoholism; Grattan’s madness; and much more.
The thing I enjoyed the most about this novel is the changing relationship between Joe and Iseult and how—somehow—they manage to stick it out. When they go back to the mountain where they buried their first daughter, Iseult reflects on their life together and equates their marriage to this journey and this landscape that houses the past, the wild, the dead, the living. “We’ve made the trip”, she thinks, and “that’s what counts.”