The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
If you’re interested in depressing historical fiction, this is the book for you. Even though that may not seem like a positive preface to this review, it is the most accurate description I can think of when considering this novel.
First off, it all begins with what is an obviously tragic situation: the Irish famine. There is a whispered word that disease is spreading in the soil, but high up on their hill the farmers believe they are untouchable. Fergus is our protagonist, a poor, presumably fifteen year old (I don’t believe his age is ever established) who has lived in squalor his entire life. The potato plague eventually touches his little garden plot and those around him, so the farmers are forced to make a decision: beg along the roads on the way to the larger cities or stay planted in their farms waiting it out.
Of course Fergus has a father who is stubborn and refuses to leave. His family slowly suffers from black fever and starves to death before his eyes, are accidentally burnt alive, he is sent to a type of shelter where the black fever begins destroying the people around him. After escaping he begins to make his own way through the world, first joining up with a group of vagabonds who create their own army and meet a sad demise.
We follow Fergus as he goes through literally a series of horrible incidences; it almost feels like an adult version of Lemony Snickets. You root for him as he rescues a damsel in distress and manages to scrape together enough money for a ticket to Quebec.
You would think at that point something good would happen to him, but no, of course the trip across the ocean is fraught with death and betrayal. Great. A man who appears to be a mentor to him and even a father figure dies and Fergus takes his money and goes off to begin a new life for himself.
What is the problem with The Law of Dreams? Is it not a universal truth that a suffering protagonist creates a more sympathetic and understanding character? Are we as readers not supposed to feel pangs of sadness and attachment to poor Fergus? If that is the case, it did not work. Through the entire story I felt a sort of detachment from Fergus, as though I kept expecting him to die in a type of gruesome manner.
Then there is this strange narration that occurs throughout the novel. Before I started reading it, I took a quick peek at the reviews on Goodreads (never a good idea) and was interested to see that this was the main complaint. The style of writing could be confusing for some people although I didn’t find it really confusing…I found it pretentious. The words that Behrens uses are carefully crafted but also seem very flowery in contrast to the stark plot and content. This may have been his intention, but instead of being an intriguing juxtaposition, it becomes wearying.
Finally, the language was a bit forced. Was there any reason to use “c—t” throughout the novel? It turned what could have been a great high school read into something forbidden. I certainly did not base my rating on the language, but it seemed unnecessarily shocking to me. Other descriptions of sex were gentler and took the form of double entendres. Why couldn't the author have been more consistent in his choice of expression is beyond me.
If you like grim and realistic novels, this is a good read. However, I would recommend Angela's Ashes or 'Tis ahead of this story, because I felt that they had more heart and emotions in them. I probably won’t read this book again, which means I will have to send my copy to the Goodwill for another lucky reader to enjoy.
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