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MisterHobgoblin

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About MisterHobgoblin

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    many cultures : one world
  • Birthday May 29

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    Melbourne
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  1. The Mercy Seat

    The Mercy Seat is a very elegant piece of writing. Set in Louisiana, 1943, we visit a small town on the eve of the execution of Will Jones, an 18 year old black man convicted of raping a white girl in her own bedroom. The point of view flits back and forth between various people touched by the impending execution - Will himself, his father, the DA and his family, a couple who run the petrol station, a prison trustee helping to relocate Gruesome Gertie, Father Hannigan... Each character is really clearly delineated; each has his or her own story to tell. And quite beautifully, the various characters' stories draw parallels with one another. We explore fathers and sons, grief, racism, kindness, religion and, ultimately, the death penalty. Unlike many similar death row novels, this one does not beat the reader over the head with the weight of the message. We see an imperfect society that struggles to live with itself, conflicted in its prejudice and its desire for decency. The novel is devoid of sensation. It is almost humdrum in the processes and tasks that have to be accomplished to bring the weight of the law to bear on the hapless Will Jones. In very few pages, in short snippets, Elizabeth H Winthrop creates a convincing world that fits perfectly in 1943, but rings uncannily true of modern, landlocked, small-town America. Sure, there are no more Jim Crow laws but all it takes is a casual glance at CNN to see that the law does not operate equally for black and white; for rich and poor. While supreme court judges pontificate in Washington DC, the law is actually applied by sheriffs, DAs and governors appealing to the redneck vote. The Mercy Seat keeps the reader mentally shuttling from history to current day and back again. It is deeply unsettling, showing us us how little social attitudes have changed. The pacing is fantastic; never too slow and never rushed. We cover an astonishing amount of ground in a 24 hour period but it is manageable and memorable. The reader doesn't need to concentrate to keep track of people because it all fall into place so effortlessly. The ending, just like the death penalty itself, fails to provide any form of adequate resolution; it leaves the reader spiralling in thought and what-ifs. The Mercy Seat is not the only death row novel, but it must be one of the classiest. *****
  2. Every now and then, I like to read a bit of trash. At their best, serial killer thrillers can be really good fun - pacy, exciting, suspenseful as well as offering a social commentary on our times. Eye Contact does not tick any of these boxes. We know the killer. He's called Robert Naysmith, a travelling business rep whose performance targets are so lax that for every day spent chasing contracts, he can spend a fortnight chasing a murder victim, plotting their demise in forensic detail, and buying a new set of clothes for each hit. The victims are selected by being the first person to look him in the eye after an arbitrarily defined point of time, and he then gives them 24 hours before he comes looking, The victims, needless to say, oblige him by sticking to predictable routines, habitually wandering around outside in the wee small hours, invariably near water, and having some souvenir about their person that can be passed on to the next victim. Naysmith seems to have a stable homelife, access to unlimited cash for hotels and pretty much no backstory. Who knows why he kills? Then there's the detective. DI Graham Harland. Grieving the loss of his wife, and with a pathological hatred of Sergeant Pope for no adequately explored reason, he finds the key that unlocks the case (yes, it really is a key - boom tish). A couple of quite unlikely discoveries and a couple more miraculous hunches on the way, and he is hot on the trail of Naysmith. The novel as a whole has issues with pacing - way too much detail planning the bloody murders with field visits to the locations weighing heavily on the narrative. No hole in the hedge is too insignificant to mention. All, presumably, to persuade us that Naysmith is intelligent, meticulous and untraceable. So when he picks a highly traceable souvenir from one of his victims, it sets an alarm screaming - with half a book of predictable denouement to follow. The story is inexplicable, albeit grindingly easy to predict. The characters are undeveloped, the relationships are cartoonish and the author has a tin-ear for dialogue. The ending is not an ending - just a set-up for the sequel. And the fact that we follow both killer ad detective from opposite ends dispels any sense of suspense. This really is shockingly bad, but so bad it almost becomes good. ***00
  3. Speak No Evil

    Speak No Evil is a difficult read but well worth the effort. Niru is a final-year high schooler in Washington DC. His parents are ambitious, wealthy Nigerians for whom appearances matter. They live in the best neighbourhood, rub shoulders with Washington's movers and shakers, invest in art - but still hanker after the old country and their corrupt relatives. Niru himself is athletic and bright, holds an early offer for Harvard, and the future is his for the taking. In a coming of age story, Niru finds himself adored by his classmate Meredith, but is unable to reciprocate. Niru faces up to the fact that he is not a ladies' man and, encouraged by Meredith, he starts to explore his sexuality. This does not sit well with Niru's family culture. The first two thirds of the book is narrated by Niru. His voice is fantastic, wise, witty but always conscious of the unwritten limitations imposed on people with brown skin. He portrays individuality and ambition in a society where he knows people of colour are perceived to be homogenous. he accepts the respect of his classmates for his ability but knows he will never achieve their friendship. We share Niru's frustration, but also feel frustration at his acceptance of the limitations it imposes. We also sense his rebellion against the culture to which his parents adhere. Niru has a conflict between his own westernisation and a world that is unwilling to accept it. The final third of the book is narrated by Meredith, whose voice is less compelling. Meredith is white and her family is privileged; her father hankers after a seat in the Supreme Court. But her family finds itself at odds with the new values introduced by President 45. Her narrative is a rage against the world, especially the world that is being built in Washington right at the moment. She is angry at the level of acceptance of injustice and at the way she is compelled to play a role in that world based on her race and her wealth. The novel is particularly challenging to read because it eschews traditional narrative and traditional dialogue. Time jumps around. Parts are written in the here and now; then there will be a jump over a significant time period whose events we must infer from future narrative. Conversation is not reported with traditional punctuation, making it hard to follow, especially when occasionally blended with Nigerian patois. It is hard to grasp the significance of major plot details delivered as single references in what appears to be throwaway dialogue. However, it is worth coming to the novel with a clear head to follow the plot - the effort really does repay itself. The language and imagery are brilliant, Iweala creates a world with perfection. Much of the imagery centres around colour, particularly black and white, light and dark. The political messages from the book are loud and clear . When Meredith's narrative takes over, sometimes the messages are too clear, being contained in sections of polemic. That is a bit if a shame after Niru's gentle narrative where the reader is trusted to draw his or her own conclusions from the events and ideas. The Achilles Heel of the book, though, is the pacing and structure. Essentially the denouement comes at the one third mark; the rest feels like a really padded "what happened next" section that you get at the end of some TV movies. Parts of it are necessary to give a second perspective on Niru and his family - but perhaps some other structure could have left the emotional punch to near the end. The actual ending, when we get there, feels anti-climactic. So Speak No Evil is a short, literary novel that has much to commend it, but it just doesn't feel quite as satisfying as the ideas and writing talent had led this reader to expect. Still very much worth picking up, but five stars have become only three and a half. ***1/2
  4. First Person

    If First Person were a first novel, the rejection letters would say the publishers did not know how to position the text. Because this is part novel, part memoir. Part psychological thriller, part dissection of the writing and publishing industry. For the most part, it is a highly readable and intriguing work. Basically, the story is that in 1992 an aspiring (and unpublished) Tasmanian writer, Kif Kehlmann, is offered a contract to ghost write an autobiography of a fraudster, Ziggy Heidl, who is going to jail in six weeks. The lure is a $10,000 contract – enough to persuade Kif away from his heavily pregnant wife to spend time, holed up in the publisher’s Port Melbourne office, with a taciturn and evasive Ziggy. As time trickles through Kif’s fingers, and as the larger-than-life publisher Gene Paley gets increasingly twitchy, Kif plumbs the depths of despair. Oh, and Kif has been warned not to divulge any personal details by Ziggy’s minder Ray – who not entirely coincidentally turns out to have been Kif’s childhood friend. Much of the novel is spent trying to work out just who Ziggy is. He claims to have been born and raised in Adelaide, yet speaks with a German accent. He was CEO of a large safety-based organisation that secured multi-million dollar loans from banks, but was also rumoured to have been involved in a criminal underworld where his business adversaries met sticky ends. He appears to be desperate for money – his $250,000 fee dwarfs that of his ghost writer – yet he seems to have no major expenses and will not need money in prison. He is simply unknowable. And that is Kif’s problem as he has to create the character at the heart of the autobiography. Apparently much of the novel is, in a sense, autobiographical. As an aspiring writer, Richard Flanagan landed a six week job ghost-writing an autobiography for a German-Australian fraudster who shot himself three weeks into the process. And through the fictionalisation of this story, we learn a great deal about the publishing industry – or at least Richard Flanagan’s perspective on it. This includes air-headed publicists, lazy publishers who sit back while writers do the work for subsistence wages, vainglorious premises, A-list writers with obscene riders for appearances at publicity events, unfair contracts, and a general dis-interest in the truth. At times, it feels a bit like a whinge but Flanagan’s writing is good enough to keep the reader interested. Where the novel doesn’t quite work, at least for me, was the pacing. The first 10% is a slow burn and doesn’t really grab the reader. Then there’s a lot of really compelling stuff; a really satisfying middle. Then, the final 20% - set 20 or more years later when Kif has become famous – feels overly long and a bit tacked on. It does offer a new perspective through which to re-appraise the Ziggy storyline but without being truly persuasive about how Kif could have got from there to here. The magic, for me, was in the relationship between Ziggy and Kif, each needing the other but unwilling to admit as much. And for that to work they both need to be there together. Overall, though, an intriguing and puzzling novel that follows up on the enormous success of The Narrow Road to the Deep North without trying to replicate it. ****0
  5. Home is a slow burning psychological thriller seen through the eyes of a pre-schooler. Jesika is four and lives in a slum apartment with her mother Tina and baby brother Toby. She narrates the story through four-year old eyes and using four-year old vocabulary that includes some mis-hearings (e.g. apposed for supposed; hopsipal instead of hospital). This is a mixed blessing. It is cutesy to start, and it offers adult readers the opportunity to re-interpret Jesika's observations with rather less innocence. But on the debit side, the language becomes somewhat staccato and monosyllabic. It makes for a difficult read, especially for the first third of the book where not much seems to be happening. And it also makes it hard for the reader to form a genuine emotional affection for Jesika and her mother. I confess that at a third of the way in, I was all for giving up... ... but I'm glad I didn't. Tina and Jesika lead lonely lives. Jesika goes to pre-school, and Tina goes to the shops and the launderette. But they are poor as church mice and have no spare money for socialising. The rent is overdue and Darren, the landlord, is a stranger to the tenancies legislation. So when Tina runs into a couple of old school friends who seem to be doing OK, she sees the prospect of a brighter future. But at what price? Gradually the tension ratchets up. The difficulty of reading a four year old voice is overtaken by the difficulty of reading some pretty challenging subject matter. By half time, the books has got its hooks in to the reader, and by the end, the pace and tension are electric. I'm still not completely sure I bought all the characters and even, to an extent, I'm not sure the situation exactly rang true. But the plot drove the novel through this. Having doubted the characters, they do provide enough to cause thought on a number of issues - housing poverty, social isolation, vulnerability, trust and altruism. However, Home is not just an issues novel. And although I suspect most readers will be female, it would be wrong to pigeonhole this as women's fiction. It's actually a cracking good read. ****0
  6. From a Low and Quiet Sea

    From a Low and Quiet Sea is a difficult book to categorise. Is it a novel? Is it stories? Does it matter? In this case, I think it does. Most novels have a clear narrative arc. There is a beginning where we are introduced to characters and situations, then there is a quest where someone is looking for something, and then there's the end - usually when that something has been found (a happy novel) or irredeemably lost (a tragic novel). There will be a major plot development at exactly half way through, and mini-changes at one and two thirds of the way through. It makes for a satisfying, if somewhat predictable pace. Sometimes great novels depart from the formula in spectacular style. But attempting this is a gamble; it can make a novel feel tricksy and badly paced. Despite some brilliant writing at the sentence level, I fear that Low and Quiet Sea is a bit of a busted flush. Basically, we have three stand-alone stories. Farouk is a man fleeing an unnamed war-torn country by boat in the Mediterranean. Probably Syria, but possibly Libya. This is written in a highly stylised manner, conveying an exotic culture and working as a proxy for a different values system to the anticipated reader. It feels quite like Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, but dealing with the journey as much as the before and after. Lampy is a man who might be quite bright, but his ambition exceeds his prospects and right now he is driving a bus for an aged care facility in the West of Ireland. He lives at home with his mother and (possibly senile) grandfather and spends his time trying to find the woman of his dreams. John is a wealthy accountant who speaks in religious tones but who seems to have had a pretty earthly life. In each of the stories, the focus is on the character with details unfolding slowly to create a ruler picture. Each is written in a quite distinctive voice with perfect tone and a poet's attention to detail. Truly these are gems. And they represent about 80% of the book. Then, there's a final section that follows three women - the breaks between these three sub-narratives is intentionally un-signposted. From these narratives, we see how the three male characters fit together (and they don't fit together terribly much, if the truth be told) and we see enough external perspective to make us reassess (although not completely revise) our estimation of the three male characters. This section is terribly hard to follow; the reader has to have pretty close recall of the earlier sections and hold a lot of oblique references together to really create a map of how everyone fits into the somewhat scant story. The conclusion, at least for this reader, is that this is a work of technical brilliance and innovation, but one where the pace and balance feel all wrong. Yes it is enjoyable, but it's not that satisfying. So how do you score a book that has probably achieved the author's objectives completely, but where the author's ambition does not quite coincide with the product the reader desires? If ever there were a case for three and a half stars, this is it. ***1/2
  7. Crossing The Lines

    Crossing The Lines is a strange novel - post-modern metafiction. We have a crime writer, Madeleine, writing about a literary fiction writer, Edward, who is in turn writing about a crime writer, Madeleine. Madeleine is having trouble breaking out of her genre and her publisher is not happy with her departure from her successful crime series. Edward finds himself under suspicion of pushing an art critic down the stairs to his death at an art exhibition.The two writers engage one another increasingly deeply in their lives, each plotting the other into and out of impossible situations. The circularity is very well done, with the reader never quite clear what is reality and what is plot; whether Madeleine or Edward is the real writer or the character. In truth, they are both the writer and the character at the same time, but with the plot effortlessly slipping from one reality to another.All this is punctuated heavily with writer in-jokes. The agents, the publishers and their insistence on writing being easily categorisable, the writers' festival with unequal queue lengths at the signing table, the crazy deadlines... Plus, if anyone has ever known a writer they will recognise the wild lurches in plot as the writer changes ideas; minor characters morph into major ones; names change; Madeleine becomes Sri Lankan half way through the piece. It is an absolute riot.On the debit side, though, the plot (which is not really the main focus of the novel) is quite hard to follow. In fact, that's an understatement. It is nigh on impossible to follow. But the individual fragments are so enjoyable that it hardly matters whether they really fit together. And there's almost no realism except for the tortured minds of the writers.The ending, when it comes, is really clever and witty - and feels quite satisfying even if it does leave the reader wondering just what happened. ****0
  8. The Reservoir Tapes

    Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 stepped out life in a small town, year by year, over the 13 years since a teenage visitor, Becky Shaw, went missing. One of the most powerful aspects of the novel was the lack of sensationalism about the disappearance; it was mentioned in the first year or two, but faded into the backstory. Occasionally a piece of clothing would turn up or a memory would be stirred, but it was merely incidental.So the Reservoir Tapes is a companion piece. In that first year, we have 15 narratives from 15 different people regarding Becky’s disappearance. Bookended by the two parents, there is puzzlement, sadness and a great deal of indifference demonstrated by the town’s residents.I believe this was first conceived as a series of short radio broadcasts, so each narrative is roughly the same length and self-contained in terms of telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Each narrator has a quite different voice, each has an agenda…Just like Reservoir 13, the pitch is gentle, subtle and beguiling. There is as much told through reading between the lines, spotting what is not being said, as by the words themselves. This is a perfect companion piece that adds significantly to Reservoir 13 without taking anything away. *****
  9. The Outer Circle

    The Outer Circle is set over the course of five days, shortly after the end of the London 2012 Olympics. The story is set on the other side of the city in the very affluent area of Regents Park and Primrose Hill. A man walks into the Regents Park Mosque with a flamethrower...We follow the event and the aftermath through the eyes of five different characters: Saul - an older man who walks through Regents Park to get his daily treatment for prostate cancer Rashid - who works in the bookshop at the Mosque, a recent convert to Islam Deena - a black police officer Tom - a student Jan - a journalist The narrative is broken into sections that drop in and out of the characters' lives, all trying to unpick what has happened. At times the characters can seem a bit cliched, and the dialogue can sound pretty clunky at times, but the story is compelling enough to capture the reader. The book's real strength is the sense of place. Regents Park is a pretty small area, even though, as we're told more than once, it takes a while to walk the length of the park. It is an area with cafes and bars, bandstands and bunkers. It has a high footfall from tourists, locals, dog-walkers, homeless... The park is almost a place apart from the rest of the city; the roads through it are closed at night and feel like secret roads; there are lawns and trees and bushes instead of the buildings and CCTV cameras; the park has its own rules and those who use the park feel temporarily relieved from the rules of the rest of the city. But as well as adhering to the strict geography of the park, there is also a sense of multi-cultural London. It has been in broadcast into every home around the world through the Olympics, it has folk of all colours and creeds. The cultural diversity is great enough that, for the most part, people can walk around unnoticed in a busy and somewhat impersonal city. We step into the world of politics and prejudice - with a firmly left of centre editorial policy applied sometimes with a heavyish hand. The novel is pacy and the pages seem to turn themselves. All five characters have their individual quests and part of the fun is seeing how they interlink. This is a light, entertaining read that sometimes promises to provoke thoughts and sometimes succeeds in doing so. This would be worth taking to the beach on holiday to deliver a taste of home. ****0
  10. Stories

    NB: Although this volume was published in 2017, the stories contained in it were first published in the 20th Century in different collections. Hence the categorisation of this topic in BGO. Stories is the short companion volume to the much longer True Stories, the compendium of Helen Garner's short non-fiction work.Unsurprisingly, then, Stories are the short fiction. Except that Helen Garner's work is notoriously hard to categorise. These are not really stories, they are essays written from the point of view of someone who just happens not to exist. The quality is apparent in that you have to keep reminding yourself that it is not memoir or editorial. And it is not the life of Helen Garner portrayed by actors, in that the characters are so completely different: flighty women, abused women, strong women, a gay man, a nationalist drunk, ... Always Australian, though. Mostly the stories don't have what you'd think of as a narrative arc. They start with no preamble and the reader is required to piece together what it is they are reading, And the ends tend to just peter out rather than reaching any real resolution. So this is not an easy read. Nor is it what would traditionally be called entertaining. It's not even that thought provoking. But there is a beauty in it when looked at closely, in just how perfectly some moments and some details are captured. Invariably uncomfortable moments. ****0
  11. Happy 2018

    Happy new year to you to - and to all the other BGO-ers. It's been 2018 for half a day here already!
  12. Seventeen

    Seventeen bills itself as "an investigative thriller in the aftermath of an air disaster". Truly, it isn't.Instead, Seventeen is a competent and intriguing evocation of the inner workings of a local Japanese newspaper, the North Kanto Times, using the backdrop of an air disaster on the paper's doorstep to allow simmering resentments and rivalries to boil over. We are introduced to Kazumasa Yuuki, who is trying to make an ascent on Tsuitate rock face some seventeen years after making a promise to his colleague, Anzai, to climb the face with him. This leads Yuuki into a spiral of reminiscences of the events seventeen years ago, where the planned ascent of the rock was interrupted by the crash of a Japanese Airlines 747 into a nearby mountain, causing the deaths of 524 people.Seventeen years ago, Yuuki had been a roving reporter with the North Kanto Times, assigned to lead the Air Crash desk. He was responsible for sending reporters out into the field, editing their stories, deciding the layout and, ultimately, which stories would make the cut and which would not. Yuuki was the most experienced reporter at the paper who had not gone into management, leaving him both respected and shunned.The paper itself was constantly compromised in its effort to sustain circulation. It could not make political statements, could not ally more with one side than another (a problem in a province where the two main rivals in Japan's ruling political party held their bases), and shunned real news in favour of reporting local school sports fixtures, naming every player in an effort to sell the paper to kids' parents. But politics loomed large in the boardroom where the chairman and managing director were engaged in a bitter power struggle, sucking staff into one faction or the other.So when the 747 went down in the paper's area - despite not being on a major flight path - the paper entered an existentialist crisis. The natural instinct of a journalist is to go after a scoop, but when the scoop comes, the fear is paralysing. Nobody knows how to play it, and the temptation is to retreat to the familiar comforts of routine basketball games and ceremonial openings of arts festivals. This is the context into which Yuuki is thrust - with all eyes on him. And at the same time, Yuuki has his own personal issues to resolve, not least of which is the sudden collapse of his climbing buddy Anzai from the circulation department...Seventeen is a very complex novel with many characters and a network of relationships between them. It can be tricky to keep up with exactly who is who, particularly for anglophone readers who are not attuned to Japanese names. Hideo Yokoyama includes little summary lines when reintroducing a character to remind us of their role - this can feel irritating and repetitive, but without it I suspect the reader would be hopelessly lost. A further issue raised by the complexity is the uneasiness the reader will have in discerning what is actually the focus of the novel. Is it the plane crash? Is it the office politics? Is it Yuuki's personal situation? In truth it is all of these and none of them. It is really a slice of drama, a fly on the wall, from a newspaper office at a time of crisis. There is no particular beginning and no end. There is no great narrative arc, no moral, no winners and losers. It just is.And then there's the present day, climbing Tsuitate. I can see that there was a need to have the odd period of relief from the intensity and claustrophobia of the North Kanto Times - and the open air and focus on small, technical details of the climb provided that. It also offered an opportunity for Yuuki to put some distance between himself and the events of the past. But this came at the expense of elevating one strand of the story - Yuuki's personal life - above the others in significance even though it was perhaps not the most prominent line at the time of the disaster.Overall this is a complex, thoughtful and thought-provoking novel that has been somewhat cruelly mis-labelled to give a sure-fire guarantee of disappointing many of its readers. ****0
  13. Book Lists 2018

    6 Education, Education, Education - Andrew Adonis (current read) 5 The Outer Circle - Ian Ridley **** 4 14-18 A New Vision for Secondary Education - Kenneth Baker *** 3 The Disappearance Boy - Neill Bartlett **** 2 Stories - Helen Garner **** 1 Seventeen - Hideo Yokoyama ****
  14. 4 3 2 1

    4321 is an immense book. Immense in length (the paperback is 1070 pages) and immense in ambition. Ambition that has been fully realised. All the more pleasant a surprise as I have never read Paul Auster before. We meet Archibald Ferguson, four times over. But first, we have a story of his grandfather, coming to America with an unpronounceable Jewish name, failing to tell the immigration man that their name is Rockefeller. So on to Archibald - or Ferguson - as he is known in each version. There are four alternative versions, all similar but with key life events unfolding in four different ways. We have rich Ferguson, poor Ferguson, gay Ferguson and intellectual Ferguson (not necessarily in that order), influenced by events both in and outwith his control, but always with a talent for baseball and a passion for writing. We see formative life in New Jersey/New York in the 1950s through four slightly different eyes. We see the growing liberalism of the 1960s and the emergence of the Vietnam war. Each of these different perspectives, broadly similar but slightly askew, serve to give extremely sharp focus. There are moments of high drama, moments of tragedy. There's a lot of love and heaps of sadness. Some events come as surprises, others are telegraphed dozens of pages ahead. The novel is long - it took me over 3 weeks to finish - but it is very readable. The language is accessible, the story lines are transparent. The structure of the novel is that seven periods of time are covered, taking each version of Ferguson in turn. Each section is long enough to become fully immersed in the story, but also long enough that it takes a while to reacclimatise to a previous story line when it cycles back. Happily, Paul Auster puts in plenty of reminders/recaps to help the reader. This is not a novel where the author tries to show how brilliant he is - it is a reader's book that the reader will recognise as brilliant on its own merits. The ending - the last few pages of this beast of a book - make sense of the whole exercise. It is a truly devastating ending that will leave an already exhausted reader fighting for emotional survival. It is clever; it is memorable. The sheer length of this book and the density of the print will deter purchasers. And once purchased, the book may spend some time sitting on a shelf waiting for the perfect moment that a reader is willing to commit a month to Project 4321. But when that moment comes, seize it! *****
  15. The First Day

    The First Day is a really well crafted novel exploring love, loyalty, forgiveness and revenge. Samuel Orr is a pastor in East Belfast. He is married and has children. One day, inexplicably, he meets Anna, a literature PhD student from across the divide. They fall for each other and Samuel Junior is the result. The first half of the novel is told in third person by a very present narrator, throwing in editorial comment. It is heavily laden with biblical references - perhaps also Samuel Beckett references that I wouldn't recognise - telling the sorry tale of Samuel and Anna. Samuel wrestles with conflicting loyalties to Anna and his wife; to God and to his congregation. He tries to do the right thing, but sometimes there is no right thing to be done. This part of the novel is not a new plot but it is told in such a distinctive way, and the spirit of Belfast is evoked with brilliance. The second half of the novel is set thirty years later - some distance in the future - where we meet Sam Jr in New York where he works in the Met art gallery. He is haunted both psychologically and literally by Philip, his half brother who has never forgiven the two Samuels for the infidelity. Sam Jr narrates this in first person but, ironically, it loses some of the immediacy and feeling of the first half of the novel. The time and place never seems to be fully created and the plotting becomes somewhat more obscure. The chronology gets really hazy and it is not always clear what is driving the characters, what is motivating them to do what they do. It's still a good read, but just not as captivating as the earlier sections. Overall this is an impressive novel that captures some of the nuances of Northern Ireland society without being captured by the obvious divisions of sectarianism and politics. It demonstrates real innovation in narrative voice and structure, and leaves the reader wanting more. That's pretty good for a debut novel. ****0
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