“Of course there really is no country of dreams that also exists outside the dreams.”
I read Peter Behrens’ Law of Dreams several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the story and the writing. When The O’Briens was published I was excited to read another of Behrens’ novels but the story fell short for me and I ended up abandoning it before finishing. When I read about Carry Me I was tentative to try it but I am so glad I did. This novel has such a nice pace to both the writing and to the story. This story also has an exceptionally satisfying ending – something that I find to be incredibly rare in the novels I choose to read.
With a narrative that moves back and forth in time, Carry Me follows Billy, his parents and Karin, the daughter of close family friends and employers, through Europe during the two World Wars. Throughout the story Billy and Karin both dream of escaping their war-torn lives to freedom, space and open air in El Llano; a place they believe to exist only in the American novels they read. One of the most striking aspects of this story is the way the narrative moves seamlessly between the First and Second World Wars. Because Billy narrates the entire story as it happened it the past, it is not always immediately evident which era he is describing and it gives the story a bit of a disorienting and dream-like state at several points where I was unsure how old the characters were or where the story was taking place. I really enjoyed the effect this had on the narrative.
I also really appreciated Billy’s narrative style. Like I said, Billy was re-telling the story of his childhood and young adulthood. Frequently throughout the story, Billy directly addresses the readers, for example, when he tells us that he won’t explain the nitty-gritty family details because he doesn’t want to bore us with genealogy, when he promises to be honest, or when he explains his choice to incorporate letters, telegrams and diary entries because he wants us to be able to hear the real voices of the characters. Perhaps most interesting is the way Billy readily admits his own unreliability as a narrator – something I can’t remember ever having come across in other novels I have read.
The plot of this novel is unusual to me in the way that it takes place during the Wars but it is not a story about the wars. I loved the human aspect of this story: the development of Billy from childhood through to adulthood, his descriptions of Karin as a character and the various writings pulled from Karin’s journal. Through Billy and Karin we see a very interesting development in the perception and experience of the wars at two different points in their lives.
While the novel is not really about the wars themselves, the story does take place during the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, so the wars are central to the lives of this story’s characters. Behrens paints an absolutely gut-wrenching portrait of characters – who have long been friends and allies to Billy and Karin – turning to Nazism and causing a wave of fear and disbelief to sweep through these two families. The novel also shows Billy struggle with his own guilt about being a cowardly bystander when he witnesses terrible acts in his own city. These underlying currents of fear, paranoia, guilt, grief and worry created a beautiful tension in this story that brought me right into the minds of these characters.
In all, Carry Me feels vast while simultaneously seeming like very little happens. The calmness and precision of Behrens’ writing allow an incredibly tumultuous time to be brought to life in a way that is not anxiety-provoking, but that instead allows readers into the thoughts and choices of characters who are trying to make their way in a world ravaged by war. In this novel Behrens also illuminates the complex nature of love by exploring not only the ways our families and closest friends can support and protect us but also the ways that, despite their best intentions, they can trap and endanger us.