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The First Day by Phil Harrison

First published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on October 24, 2017

The First Day is told in two parts by two narrators. The first part is set in Belfast. Samuel Orr is a pastor who is married to Sarah with a son named Philip. He is having an affair with Anna, having courted her with gospel. After Anna becomes pregnant, tragedy ensues and Orr has a spiritual crisis, perhaps belatedly. His life changes, and then it changes again, as Orr makes an uncharacteristic choice that tears apart his family. Yet while Orr’s life changes, Orr seems to remain “his flawed, blunt self.”

What are we to make of Orr? Is he driven by the divine or is he a coward, hiding behind his religion to avoid sectarian responsibility? Is he a hypocrite who refuses to honor the values he preaches, or a sinner trying to find his way to redemption? Late in the novel, Orr counsels that fear and shame motivate almost everything we do, yet he understands that living in fear and shame does not make for a fulfilling life. The extent to which Orr feels either fear or shame is something of a mystery.

Anna, unlike Orr, is an easier character to understand and admire. She has an inner strength that allows her to hold true to her values. Anna is deeply introspective, a close observer of life who fearlessly internalizes its lessons.

The other key character in the first part is Philip, who at 15 has “turned his anger into a solid thing, a weapon” he wields as “a craftsman of hatred.” Orr and Anna are both the objects of his hatred, although as time passes, he seems to show genuine affection for his half-brother Samuel, Anna’s son with Orr.

The narrator of the first half tells the story in the present as it was told to him by its participants. The story builds to a surprising climax that occurs shortly after the narrator reveals his identity. The novel’s second half, now narrated by Samuel, takes place 35 years later. Samuel lives in New York and works as a guard at an art museum.

Samuel fills in his backstory, which includes a struggle to discover his own identity and to cope with his past. Events that force Samuel to confront his fears also build low-key suspense and anticipation as the reader wonders whether demons from the past will destroy or heal the Samuel of today.

Given that Orr is a pastor who sinned, it is not surprising that forgiveness is a dominant theme of The First Day. But the story is not simple. Orr’s opinions about forgiveness are rooted in his religion; they almost make it easy for him to be careless with others. His wife and family and lover never quite occupy his life in the same way that his own thoughts (of God or, more likely, himself) serve to fill his days. Philip does not seem the forgiving type while Samuel wonders whether forgiveness should be left to God (if God exists), and whether at the human level, some acts might not be forgivable.

Tension mounts as the story nears its resolution; the reader anticipates a confrontation of some sort, but the specifics cannot be predicted, only dreaded. The story is told in a restrained voice that underplays emotion without diminishing the novel’s drama. Anna is influenced by Beckett, who told writers to search for the honesty that lurks behind words. Phil Harrison has obviously taken that advice to heart. The First Day is an honest examination of intricate and evolving relationships between a flawed father and his damaged sons.


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