Friday 23 March 2018

The preacher, the affair and a son's retribution

Fiction: The First Day, Phil Harrison, Fleet, hdk, 214 pages, €15

Phil Harrisson: cranks of sense of menace
Phil Harrisson: cranks of sense of menace
The First Day

Divided as it is into two sections of almost-identical length, The First Day is essentially a pair books in one. But it's not just a structural thing: the halves of Phil Harrison's debut are significantly different in setting.

The novel opens in 2012 Belfast, to chart the affair between preacher Samuel Orr and lecturer Anna Stuart. They're an unlikely couple.

She's a non-believer, 28 years old, who teaches a college course on Beckett (another Samuel) and writes poetry. He's a decade older, married with three sons, and very firm in his religious beliefs.

His faith is so robust, so fundamental to who he is, that whenever something bad happens, not only does that faith not weaken, it actually becomes stronger, like steel tempered in the fire of pain. Orr is one of those people who holds God to account for misfortune, challenges him, maybe even hates him at times - but he never rejects God.

He might have stepped from a Graham Greene novel (though Greene's heroes, of course, were obsessed with Catholicism, not Orr's Protestant variation on Christianity). Stoical, melancholy, morally courageous, self-indulgent, ever-questioning, with inner peace and constant doubt fighting a never-ending duel over custody of his soul.

Anna, meanwhile, is wry, sceptical, intelligent. And quite grounded, though her common sense is willingly flung out the window as her romance with Orr deepens. Again, reminders of Graham Greene: this passionate fling could have come from The Heart of the Matter or The End of the Affair.

Orr and Anna have a baby, Sam also; his wife kills herself and Orr's eldest son Philip - the only one given a name - is warped by hatred and anger at his father. A few years later, as Anna rears the child more-or-less on her own, the teenaged Philip does something terrible to Sam. So ends part one.

Although the book is brilliantly written throughout, I was initially turned off by the centrality of religion, narratively and thematically. A preacher, Belfast, illicit affairs, guilt and sin and all the rest of it…the heart sinks.

But now we come to that split-personality structure. Book two, as we might call it, tells the story of Sam, three decades into the future. He's thirtysomething, gay, working in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Orr, now 80 and blind, lives with him.

This shift in location, and temporal giant leap, feels like a storm breaking. The gunmetal grey skies of Belfast, and the accompanying, nearly-black mood of sombre, dolorous tension, are cleared.

This is New York, the New World: a new life for Sam, new possibilities, new opportunities, a new (American) dream. Though he's often lonely and dissatisfied - and still somewhat traumatised by what Philip did to him as a small child - here he can at least try to shape his life and self anew. About a quarter from the end, The First Day changes gears again, moving from a study of interior lives to a gripping, almost thriller-esque story.

That sounds awkward or bolted-on, but it works really well: Harrison (a film director in his day-job) manages the transition smoothly, and cranks up the sense of menace by switching between past and present tense, at times paragraph-by-paragraph.

In some ways, it even feels like - religious analogy alert - something predestined, something inevitable, beyond human understanding. We are small creatures, the novel seems to say; whether religious or atheist, whether measuring yourself against God or an infinite universe, we are infinitesimal. More than that, God or the universe are as meaningless as us, so we can choose to embrace nihilism or force our own meaning on to the blank slate.

This is a truly excellent novel, on all counts. I could find small faults here and there, the main one being that our first-person narrator (Sam) appears to be omniscient. I know it's common in literature; it still bugs me. How does this guy know the deepest thoughts and feelings of other people?

But caveats are small, vanishingly so. The First Day is as well-written as any Irish novel I've read. With tight, dispassionate, superbly controlled prose, Harrison channels the spirit of Don DeLillo or Camus (or, geographically closer to home, Eoin McNamee's Resurrection Man) in an unflinching yet compassionate investigation of matters of the human heart and - Graham Greene again - the heart of the matter.

The way he can express something essential, some truth that hasn't occurred to you but makes total sense once it's pointed out, is very impressive. "Sarah refused me apathy," he writes at one stage. "She offered me - forced on me - the judgment of foolishness. She saw my failure to step fully into life and didn't ignore it but poked at it, jabbed and shoved and won reactions. The complicated magnanimity of youth… Her demand was a form of generosity."

That title, I think, refers to the Biblical act of Creation (and is nicely echoed on the last page): a fitting epitaph for this fine work of artistic invention.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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