THE FIRST DAY by Phil Harrison
Houghton Mifflin, October 2017
There is no denying that the prose in this novel is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered. But that’s about all that can be said for The First Day, which I found to be directionless and disappointingly misogynistic.
This book is divided into two parts. The first half chronicles a love affair between a priest called Orr and a Beckett scholar called Anna, living in Belfast. The two of them fall in and out of love, and somewhere in between, they have a child, called Sam. The second half is set some thirty years into the future in New York City, where Sam is working at the Met, and suddenly comes into contact with a figure from his past.
There’s not much congruity between these two halves. Each focus on different themes – the first, adultery, religion, predestination; the second, sexuality, fear, shame. Harrison’s writing seemed to exist constantly on the precipice of genuine insight – if he had given himself more room to develop the themes in this novel, I think the result would have been a lot more resonant. But unfortunately, coming in at 224 pages, this novel stops short of making any sort of statement that hasn’t been made before. And it’s frustrating, because Harrison is an incredibly skilled writer. His prose is incisive and clever and compulsively readable – lyrical, but not flowery – but really, it ends up being window dressing for a rather aimless story, that builds tension but culminates in a lackluster conclusion.
And now to my second criticism – the treatment of female characters in this novel is abhorrent. Or should I say, character. One. There’s really only one female character who makes any significant impact on this story, and while the men around her are three-dimensional, complex, enigmatic, contradictory, she, Anna, is essentially a void, unfulfilled until she becomes a mother. This is one of those books that is so, so obviously written by a male author. I’m sorry, but when you devote an entire paragraph to the experience of motherhood being literally (I’m not bending the use of the word ‘literally,’ folks) orgasmic, you’ve lost me.
“For Anna, the sheer physicality of her son was a starling location of pleasure, an eroticism she had not expected but found herself longing for daily, the strange combination of pain and focused, visceral pleasure[…]”
Anyway. Disappointing too were Anna’s lack of convictions about Orr, who let her down on more than one occasional, but who she still begged to take her back when he tried to leave. Again, all of this wouldn’t sting quite so much if Anna weren’t the only noteworthy female character in this novel.
I still have no idea how to rate this, so I’m going with the noncommittal 3 stars. I occasionally liked this in spite of myself, in spite of my many criticisms, and undoubtedly it will work better for some people than it did for me. Phil Harrison is definitely one to watch in Irish literary circles. With the self-assured quality of the prose, it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, Houghton Mifflin, and Phil Harrison.