The First Day - Phil Harrison
The First Day - Phil Harrison *****
There's a little bit of poetic licence in Phil Harrison's depictions of contemporary Belfast in The First Day, but the emphasis is on the poetic, and the author effectively plays with notions of place and especially time in order to establish a much wider view that is needed to consider the difficult questions it raises. Those are not, as you might expect, related to the traditional subject matter of the Troubles in Northern Ireland - which are long in the past by the time this book reaches its conclusion - but to family and pain, although in that respect it may well have something to say about the past as well.
Harrison, a film maker writing his debut novel, also sets out his stall early for The First Day as a very literary work, with quotes from Beckett, Bataille and Rilke all within the first 12 pages. Within those same pages however there is also a lot of quotations from Scripture - spoken by east Belfast preacher Samuel Orr - but even within all that, the author still manages to relate how 26 year old Beckett scholar Anna meets and begins an affair with the 38 year old father of three, Orr. Somewhere in that unusual, awkward situation and the poetic allusions however, Harrison does manage to captures something of the contradictory and conflicting nature of life in Belfast.
Sam Orr indeed is not unaware that his actions and behaviour are in conflict with the words he preaches. He has difficult choices to make between his love for Anna, his family and his faith, first trying to find an impossible accommodation and later realising that he must take the difficult decision of rejecting one or the other. Inevitably, whatever choice he makes is going to be a painful one, and in the end, none of those close to him are left undamaged by the outcome. For Anna, poetry and painting are as important to her as Orr's faith is to him, and it's looking at questions of faith (not religion) and love from different perspectives that seems to be important in The First Day.
In order to explore this outcome, Harrison takes the unusual step of jumping ahead to explore the impact of this affair on the subsequent generation. What is unusual is not that it covers a period of 35 years or that it divides the book between two different perspectives, but the time period it covers. The first half of the novel takes place in 2012, while the story of Sam Jr takes place in what must be 2046 or 2047. Since this is not a science-fiction book and there are no references whatsoever to any futuristic world developments, Harrison must have other reasons for choosing this time frame.
It's perhaps the question of time itself that Harrison wants to explore and emphasise, something that a straightforward division between past and present might not do quite so well, since it doesn't take the future into account. Over time, we see how love and pain are transformed, how "one pain becomes another". All everyone is trying to do is do what is right for them, but they making mistakes, find choices limited or find that they have no choice at all but to cause others pain. Sometimes the answers and accommodations cannot lie with ourselves in the present, and it may be for future generation to bring about peace and forgiveness and a wider sense of outlook on family. And sometimes it still might not be entirely achievable.
It's tempting then to look for some kind of deeper meaning or metaphor in the relationship between Sam and Anna, and later Sam and his brother Philip, but the references to Beckett more or less warn the reader away from applying any such kind of facile allegory to the story. It is what it is. If however The First Day manages to capture something deeper about the nature of life, faith and conflict in Northern Ireland, it comes as a natural consequence of how truthfully Harrison depicts those subjects within the relationships between these four characters. They are all a product of an upbringing that determines who they are to a large extent, but they also have the choice to take those pains and the past, make them their own and seek to transform them to something that offers a little more in the way of hope.
The First Day by Phil Harrison is published by Fleet on 17th June 2017