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Charles Baxter: First Light

The epigraph to Baxter’s novel is a quote from Kierkegaard: Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. The book starts with a July 4 celebration. Hugh Welch, his wife and two daughters are visited by his younger sister, Dorsey, her husband and her deaf son, Noah. Brother and sister pick up the fireworks, sold illegally by Mrs. LaMonte. There is talk, including a certain amount of brother-sister bickering, the July 4 party takes place and the chapter ends with a certain amount of antagonism between the brother and the sister. And that is the end of the book, for the rest of the book moves backward in time. It is clear that the focus will be on the relationship between the two – Hugh, the older, wanting to look after his younger and highly successful sister (she is an astrophysicist) while she feels quite able to take care of herself, despite her not entirely successful marriage and having to deal with a deaf son. Indeed, at the end Dorsey points out that she and Hugh have been”divorced”. The rest of the book shows how they got that way.

Hugh sells Buicks for a living and quite enjoys it. He and his family live in their parents’ old home (too many ghosts, says Dorsey) and he enjoys renovating the home, room by room. He has occasional flings but is generally content with his lot. Dorsey has gone to academic success, earning a doctorate and making a career in astrophysics. She also had a an affair with her mentor, which resulted in the birth of Noah. She has since married the somewhat immature actor, Simon. As we move further back, we see the closeness of the brother-sister relationship but also Dorsey’s sense of isolation, leading her to turn to the skies for her outlet. The book ends with Dorsey’s birth and Hugh’s reaction to her birth. It is a somewhat unusual way to tell a story but, thanks to Baxter’s skill in writing the individual episodes and our fascination with the relationship between brother and sister, it works.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Viking