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The Law of Dreams By Peter Behrens, Anansi, 408 pages, $32.95

'History," Stephen Daedalus declared, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Though gloomy, the view of James Joyce's fictional alter ego, expressed in 1922's Ulysses, resonated with many of his -- and his creator's -- generation. The 19th century had been a particular nightmare for the Irish, and for millions the path to wakefulness lay in exile. North America is where the majority came to escape those reveries.

The packaging of The Law of Dreams, the first novel by Montreal native Peter Behrens, mentions that the author's own ancestors followed that emigrant route. Reference is also made to how the setting for the story -- the potato blight in Ireland between 1846 and '51, better known as the Great Famine -- continues to "haunt the ancestral memory of millions." Two authenticators are thus provided to justify a fabricated tale: It is rooted in real experience and it casts light on the actual past. Our age demands more and more that fiction services fact.

But good novels are rarely interested in that service. The Law of Dreams, a very good novel indeed, is almost hostile to supplying information about historical incidents or pop-psychology insights into any ethnic group. While Behrens does tell of an Irish farmer's journey through the devastation triggered by the blight, culminating in an Atlantic crossing to Quebec, his novel isn't about these occurrences. Rather, it is concerned with the usual elemental business of fiction: character and destiny, memory and death. The "sharp, hard edge of joy" is how his protagonist, Fergus O'Brien, describes the complexity.

The son of a tenant farmer ravaged by the loss of his crop, Fergus learns early about hard edges. When his father refuses to vacate their plot for redeployment as pasture, a battle with the landowner ensues. Black fever, or typhus, cuts short the struggle, and the teenager is reduced to lying atop a bed of straw in the family hovel. With his parents both stricken and his sisters "mewing like cats" from fever, it is only a matter of time.

"He awoke to the scent of a soldier," begins a curt chapter detailing the erasure of his known existence. Emerging, literally, from the fires of oblivion is not a young man with an identity rooted in the markers of clan (O'Brien) and land ("the mountain of Cappaghabaun, near of Scariff"), but a proverbial everyman whose future is out in the wide world. "And that was the end of the old life," Fergus thinks, "dream life, Phoebe life, life on the mountain."

Phoebe is the landowner's daughter, whom the boy had been shyly courting. His new standing, however, obliterates the romance as well, a truth rendered bloody when a gang of youths he has joined unleashes their desperation upon the girl's family farm. Though only a few weeks have gone by, Fergus has already been altered by experience. In that wild world, he can honour a former bond only by agreeing to commit a terrible act of mercy.

The remaining two thirds of The Law of Dreams obliges Behrens's everyman to be further tested, and further altered, across the landscapes of Ireland and England, and out on the raging ocean. Experiences unfold one from the other, all harrowing and vivid. By odyssey's end, in a hotel on Notre Dame Street in Montreal in May, 1847, Fergus has had enough: "I have eaten too much of the world. I am not hungry no more." Then, of course, something else happens, and his passion for life, a passion that makes you "hopeful and tough," is rekindled.

Peter Behrens's previous book, the story collection Night Driving, was published in 1987. That he has lived long with The Law of Dreams is evident on every page. The prose is frequently thrilling and always arresting. It is also unsparing in its determination to distil both the precise eternals of a moment and the fierce interiority of the human mind. The dialogue, too, seems to emerge from the mouths of characters who, though well represented in the pages of similar novels, have never been allowed to talk this way before. Only the brief chapter divisions, which tend to exacerbate an already episodic structure, betray a manuscript polished beyond even its natural high sheen.

Homer's wayward hero Odysseus is the obvious model for Fergus O'Brien. A more apt colleague, though, is the character Inman from Charles Frazier's celebrated Cold Mountain. The two novels share much in common. Both are poetically charged and beautifully, painstakingly realized. Both, too, set their stories against vast historical backdrops -- the Great Famine, the American Civil War -- only to then insist on imagining those journeys as personal and, in Behrens's case, existential in nature.

If any quality may prove to distinguish the mega-success of Cold Mountain from what The Law of Dreaming can expect from the literary market place, it would be the romance factor. Like Homer, Charles Frazier was careful to soften his dire odyssey with a tale of lovers seeking to be reunited. While Behrens doesn't deny Fergus the pleasures of love, and writes powerfully about attraction and sex, in the end his everyman winds up more solitary than before.

Tough stuff, and it is a testament to Behrens's honed craft and, one senses, seasoned philosophy that his novel does not grant a sentimental inch. But then how could it, given the insights it keeps gleaning from the sharp, hard edges of joy. "The world," Fergus concludes with typical bluntness, "was composite, various, and got along very well without you. It could sew you up with a couple of stones then drop you into the ocean. It would not remember your name."

Charles Foran's most recent novel is Carolan's Farewell.

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