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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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