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Travelling Light

by Peter Behrens

Most of this collection’s 23 short stories were published in Peter Behrens’ first book, 1987’s Night Driving; in an author’s note, Behrens says he revised “but tried to avoid rewriting” them. A cynic might suggest that Travelling Light is intended to exploit the success of Behrens’ more recent novels, The Law of Dreams (which won a 2006 Governor General’s Literary Award) and its sequel, The O’Briens. However, the current publication can be justified on the basis of the new stories and the fact that Night Driving is long out of print.

The stories are divided into three sections according to the life phase of their protagonists: childhood, youth, and maturity. Whether an implicit reference to James Joyce’s Dubliners or a natural approach for an author nearing 60, it’s an effective method of drawing readers into the stories’ exploration of what it means to be alive.

The first section, “Boy’s Life,” is reminiscent of Michel Tremblay’s Plateau Mont-Royal novels as told from a more affluent, Anglo perspective, immersing readers in mid-20th-century Montreal’s grimy milieu of coal fires and churches straining under the weight of familial, neighbourhood, and sexual tensions.

The second section, “Away,” barrels along North America’s highways bound for anywhere and nowhere. As Behrens’ shady characters sweat over loose change, work itinerant jobs, and drift on the edge of the law, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road frequently comes to mind – particularly when some tourists step into a remote Mexican cantina.

Travelling Light concludes with a section titled “Coming Home,” in which fragile relationships compel the protagonists to reconsider their paths in life, or at least reflect on their journeys. The title story contains a bleak surprise for readers of The O’Briens.

Whether running as many as 25 pages or as few as two, Behrens’ stories are striking snapshots that conjure wispy connections rather than delivering answers and absolutes. Where his flawed, aimless characters are headed often remains unclear, but they are so vividly drawn, in prose both direct and evocative, they haunt the mind long after their tales are told.