Coping with loss

<strong>The Law of Dreams</strong>

Peter Behrens <em>Canongate, 394pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 18419593

In this intense debut novel, potatoes have turned into poison and a "hunger fur" is growing

over human skin. It is 1846, the height of Ireland’s famine in which starved characters sustain themselves "on the taste of dream". Fergus, the teenage protagonist, leaves Ireland after his family burn to death. Life for Fergus, who travels to Liverpool and Wales before crossing the Atlantic, is surrounded by chaos and destruction. But he is kept moving by the “law of dreams” – a refusal to dwell on what he has lost.

The most compelling moments of the novel are not the action scenes, which veer towards melodrama. Paradoxically, the book is most moving in its sudden moments of stillness, when images of loved ones surface in Fergus’s memory. Peter Behrens powerfully evokes the young man’s struggle to wriggle free not only from the workhouse in which he becomes imprisoned, but from lingering emotional attachments to what has been lost: his parents, his lover, a time when language was “thrilling, exercising, strenuous; a net you threw to capture what you didn’t know”.

Behrens captures in a distinctive voice and lush language a horrific situation that threatens to starve not only the body, but the mind’s capacity for dreaming.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger