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Peter Behrens blends fact and fiction in family saga The O’Briens

The standard disclaimer in a work of fiction – insisting it is just that and denying its characters' "resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead" – is usually brisk, assertive and buried amid the technical bumf tucked behind the title page. By contrast, the non-standard disclaimer in Peter Behrens's new novel, The O'Briens, is strangely ambiguous and elaborate. It even gets its own page and title – Author's Note – at the end of the story.

But as Behrens is happy to admit when cornered in person, the disclaimer is really just another part of the fiction – meaning the novel is as close to a true account of his own remarkable family as he could manage to write.

"These are my people," says Behrens, weathered but still boyishly handsome at 56, pointing at the old snapshot used to illustrate the cover. "That's my mom on the far left there." He didn't even bother to change their names. "Frankie O'Brien. Gorgeous Black Irish."

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Frankie is actually only a bit player in The O'Briens, which concentrates instead on the life of her father – John Joseph O'Brien, in fact and fiction – a truly rugged individual who rose from an impoverished beginning in backwoods Ontario to become a leading figure in the commercial life of mid-century Montreal. The author was one of 17 cousins who clustered close to the Westmount mansion of the family patriarch.

"They were almost like a tribe," the author says. "They were these mythic people to me as a little boy – glamorous and astounding and gorgeous." And at the centre a rock.

"It's not as if you tripped over to granddaddy's house casually," Behrens remembers. "He was always a remote figure, dressed in his silk brocade smoking jacket – very terse and a little bit scary."

Coming of age as a writer in the 1970s, Behrens harboured no ambition to cracking the deep code of his family background. Just the opposite: He lit out for Alberta at the first opportunity, working on a grain farm there and beginning a peripatetic career that included a stint as a river guide in Texas and a 15-year career writing film scripts in Hollywood, leading in no straight line to a current existence divided between winters in West Texas and summers on the coast of Maine, with a wife and five-year-old son, his first child, in tow.

"Had you suggested to me at age 20 I would end up writing about my family, I would have run screaming out of the room," Behrens says today. "I just wanted to escape anything to do with that world. But as tends to happen to writers, you end up circling back to what you began trying to escape."

But getting there required a huge imaginative leap. "I found that to understand my prosperous Montreal family I had to understand something they never spoke of, which was the past," Behrens says.

Thus the early chapters of his first attempt evolved into a novel of their own, focusing on the imagined experience of the little-known "famine Irish" immigrant whom Behrens thinks of as his great-great-grandfather. Called The Law of Dreams, Behrens's first novel (which he published at age 51) won the 2006 Governor-General's Literary Award and went on to enjoy international success.

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The O'Briens brings the story forward into the late 20th century, chronicling Joe's rise from farm boy to tycoon with a sure feeling for the texture, the artifacts and opportunities of the times. Its considerable undergirding of historical research never shows, and any resemblance to a typical "family saga" is purely coincidental.

"I wasn't at all interested in romanticizing the experience, I just wanted to explore it," Behrens says, adding: "I have a profoundly undidactic purpose in writing these books. I'm not interested in teaching people history. I just want to sink into that world."

The author's commitment to old-fashioned realism likewise prevents him from claiming deep insights into the minds of his characters, especially the driven, enigmatic Joe O'Brien. "I don't believe that you can really understand anyone else," Behrens says. "I don't even understand myself, really." He describes the traditional ideal of "characters in the round" as "a kind of pretense of fiction."

"I felt that all I could do as a writer was to deliver you, as a reader, as close as possible to this guy," he adds. "But I can't explain him."

The closest he can come to a nutshell is to compare his Joe to a better-known contemporary, Joseph Kennedy, who displayed similar behaviour with respect to his own large family. "He loved them so much it was almost like he hated them," Behrens says.

Reaction to his latest novel among the real O'Briens is likewise divided, Behrens reports. "A few have come out and said they loved it," he says. Others, "because they can't help reading people they know into it," find reading The O'Briens to be a "confusing experience."

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It may be confusing for them, but in giving his family a past few of them knew existed, Behrens has made them unforgettably alive.

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