Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The First Day by Phil Harrison – a tale of biblical knowledge, love, loss and revenge

Phil Harrison’s The First Day is a phenomenal debut novel. Immersed in a protestant evangelical world, it explores the repercussions an east Belfast mission hall pastor Samuel Orr’s passionate love affair with a younger unchurched Beckett scholar and poet Anna Stuart. It’s a setup that doesn’t seem so fanciful with the sad news this weekend from a church in Newtownards.

Initially narrated from Anna’s viewpoint before switching to the thoughts of their son some thirty years later, we watch how father of three Orr manages to rationalise his adulterous behaviour with his faith’s view on sin. Soon we also watch his inability to control the violent fallout from his fall from grace, and discover how judgement waxes and wanes in a society that only pretends to distinguish between good and evil in its most binary form. Though the gospel hall easily separates his no longer tolerable leadership with his continuing membership in a way the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly might find harder to swallow.
“… the way he looked at her, opened her up. The way a farmer looks at a field he’s about to plough.”

This is the second book I’ve read this year that is laced with issues of male ownership of female bodies. Harrison creates unusual similes that surprise, intrigue and often entertain, lightening the flow of reading what is at times a dark and sinister tale.

The somewhat mysterious yet warm narrator and the shifting perspectives are well crafted and don’t distract. The fact that 30 years into the future everything still seems to be the same as today is perhaps part of the books message and metaphor. Biblical text and lines from Beckett, sermon snippets and fine art criticism are melded together with beautifully written passages that describe love, lust, loss and revenge.

Harrison writes with elegance, an accessible intellect, and while Anna and Orr’s relationship has a somewhat rarefied and cinematic feel – The First Day could make a great film split across Belfast and Manhattan – there’s a pace and urgency that propelled this reader to squeeze in another ten or twenty pages before switching out the bedside light in the wee small hours of the morning.

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