Finally finished First Light by Charles Baxter. (Yes, loyal reader, you are correct in noting that I began reading this book months ago. Life, and other books, intervened. But I persevered!)
Hmmm… shall I give away the concept? Yes, I think I shall. The book begins when Dorsey, her husband Simon, and their deaf son Noah are on a visit to Hugh, Dorsey’s brother, in the small-town Michigan house in which they both grew up. Hugh now lives in the house with his wife Laurie, who seems not too fond of him, and their children. It’s July 4th. They buy fireworks. They think and talk a bit about their dead parents, and about the quirks of Dorsey’s husband, which Hugh finds annoying and Dorsey finds endearing. Dorsey wonders why Hugh’s wife doesn’t want him to kiss her; Hugh doesn’t want to talk about it. We learn that Hugh works in a Ford dealership and that Dorsey is a brilliant physicist.
In the next chapter, Dorsey, Simon, and Noah are on their way to Hugh’s house for the July 4th holiday. In the chapter after that, Hugh is at work at the Buick dealership, anticipating Dorsey’s visit, which is still a few weeks off. And so we move backwards through the life of the siblings, and the book ends at the moment of Dorsey’s birth, when Hugh is brought to the hospital by his father to meet his new baby sister for the first time.
It is brilliantly done, this backwards movement in time (in a book whose main character is a physicist obsessed with the movements of astral bodies in space and time). And well before before the film Memento! (The book was published in 1987; the movie came out in 2000). As we go along, we learn details big and small: why Hugh’s wife is cold & why Dorsey’s husband is odd; why Noah is deaf & why and where he bought his uncle a sea shell; when and why the parents died & what life was like for the siblings when they were young. Each new detail adds meaning to something we read earlier but did not, when first reading it, realize was significant (the motel key on Hugh’s keychain, for example, or the photograph on Dorsey’s wall).
I waited along the way for stunning revelations, skeletons in the closet. I don’t think they were there. It was just the gentle and gradual unpeeling of lives back to the point where they began, where a relationship began, the innocent point where all that was to come was unknown and unanticipated – except by us, the readers, who, by the time we get to the end (which is really the beginning) know all that is to come.
This is Baxter’s first novel, which followed two published short story collections. His strength as a short story writer is evident in this book, where each separate chapter could stand solidly on its own, so packed with nuance and detail is it. Baxter has since published several more books, including novels and books about writing. This past January he published Gryphon, a collection of short stories, some of which are new.
See the rave front page New York Times Book Review by Joyce Carol Oates http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/books/review/Oates-t.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=charles%20baxter&st=cse
I think Baxter is a writer to add to your reading list!