I picked this book up last fall and read the first few chapters. It is a novel set in Ireland in 1846 during a potato famine. It is also about 400 pages and at the time I decided I would have to come back to it. I am glad I did. It is an engrossing read. It is tragic, as you might expect, but beautifully written.
The story follows the main character, Fergus, as he sets off on his own after horrifically losing his family. Here is a sample of Behren’s writing as he describes Fergus’s thoughts when he leaves a newly made friend to die and hitches a ride out of town. “You had to stay alive; every instinct told you. Stay in your life as long as you can. If only to see what would happen. Every breath told you to keep breathing.” (pg 64)
Fergus lives in a workhouse and also with children and a deserter hiding on a bog, he travels to Liverpool, works excavating rock, and eventually makes his way to Canada. Each move is precipitated by tragedy. You can’t help but imagine what it must have been like to have been born in Ireland in those days.
The book is such that you can open to almost any page and find an intriguing piece of writing. Here, on the crossing to Canada, a trader tries to tell Fergus about life, “Life comes running at you, trailing gaudy streamers, and you can’t make them out until it’s too close – are those ribbons, or is that blood?” (pg 303)