The source of a writer's potency is mysterious, unpredictable. For novelist Peter Behrens, the hunt was long and circular, beginning with his youthful flight from a middle-class upbringing in Montreal, followed by decades when he did everything else but remember the past, until it was time to double back and sift through family lore for two magnificent novels that have established him on the international literary map.
The Law of Dreams, published in 2006 when the author was 52, follows his imagined great-great-grandfather, Fergus O'Brien, from the depths of the Irish potato famine to a harrowing sea voyage that lands him, innocence lost but spirit intact, in Montreal. The O'Briens (2011) is a family epic built around the hard centre of Fergus's son, Joe, his American wife, Iseult, and their bourgeois Montreal household of beautiful children. On a broad historical canvas, Behrens's characters live out emotionally rich lives, their powerful narratives set in exquisite prose.
Travelling Light, his collection of stories old and new, offers evidence of the several other writers he might have become had the past not laid claim to his imagination. On a plausible road map of Behrens's apprenticeship as a writer, there are hints of Thomas McGuane, Annie Proulx and, in the Montreal stories, Brian Moore.
The best is the title story, Travelling Light. Set just after the Second World War, it follows a young veteran's flight from a marriage in Montreal that has crumbled in his absence, into the arms of a war widow in Maine. Driven by one of his favourite themes, the turmoil of a man who cannot fit into his role, everything about it – structure, voice, economy – is vintage Behrens. He's a master at making action convey a character's inner state.
The most deliciously outrageous is Wanda, about a war vet who has a brief fling with the widow of a fellow soldier, and can't get over her. During a trip to New York with his wife Jane, he gets out of bed in the middle of the night to hunt for Wanda, finding her at a moment of crisis that will transform her life for the better, but not his.
When the reunion goes awry, the narrator is dazed: "I walked the thirty blocks to Yorkville, dawdling in the sunshine. Somewhere in the sixties I went into a bar and ordered Irish coffee. I spent half an hour in a furniture store and very nearly bought a buttoned leather ottoman. I was brooding, trying to analyze the situation dispassionately, but I soon gave up. After all, passion was its essence. Love and war are much the same. When you start to believe you're seeing things perfectly clearly you've fallen for the most dangerous illusion of all."
The splay of stories in Travelling Light is wide, if uneven. His fans will appreciate an opportunity to explore ground he covered to get where he is now. Those who haven't read his novels yet are advised to do so first.
Marianne Ackerman's latest novel is Piers' Desire.