The shortest novels I have read tend to follow one of two trajectories: a steady build towards a climactic event, or regular shifts between calm and upset. Tiffany Clarke Harrison’s debut novel Blue Hour is of the latter variety, keeping you poised for disaster with the turn of every page. The multi-ethnic photographer who narrates the novel directly to her husband, a Jewish tie designer, says when the two first meet that she is “Black, Haitian, Japanese.” These identifiers fuel her hurt as she mourns lost relationships and futures, as well as the smoothness of beginnings, which of course give way to the challenges of the ugly, in-between.
Blue Hour tackles a number of weighty themes, including grief, police brutality, sex versus love, and the ways we choose to cope with events we aren’t yet able to process. But what is central to the novel, acting as connective tissue amongst the other themes mentioned, is parenthood. The nameless narrator and her husband consider having a child of their own, but live in the perpetual shadow of crimes committed by law enforcement against Black bodies. Though her husband, Asher, does come closer to understanding the dangers inherent to raising Black children after he sees footage of a Black child being murdered by police, the prospect of new life ultimately outweighs his fear. However the narrator must contend not only with the terror of future loss, but also the guilt attending loss experienced in her past and present. Her relationship with her husband begins to fracture under the pressure of their discordant wants and a fundamental inability to understand one another entirely, which is where parenthood resurfaces. The narrator must parent herself in the absence of her family if she hopes to repair the damage done to various relationships, which she attempts in ways both healthy and not. She also experiences parenthood through pregnancy, encounters with her combative mother-in-law, as well as her relationship with her young photography student, Noah, whom she visits in the hospital after he, too, has a violent encounter with the police.
I emphasize parenthood as opposed to motherhood because fathers are also key—particularly Asher, whom she addresses in the second-person throughout the novel’s narration. Second-person narration can be useful in increasing immersion as its reliance on “you” as a form of address immediately encourages readers to put themselves front and center in the story. As such, Harrison’s use of the second-person is most impactful in matters concerning the narrator’s husband over the course of their partnership. Readers are invited to melt pleasantly into the warmth of their courtship, as well as to participate in their arguments. The obvious risk is emotional dissonance between Asher and the reader in moments when he behaves in ways you don’t agree with, which can pull you out of that immersion.
One such instance for me was a phone call in which Asher angrily accuses the narrator of “breaking” them in the aftermath of a devastating loss. While I understood that his words were the result of extreme grief, my instinct was to jump to the narrator’s defense. In addition to the loss, which she, too, actively grieves, we witness her physical, bodily experience of that loss in real time. Thus, for me, an emotional split occurred in which I sometimes found myself volleying uncomfortably between identifying more fully with her or with her husband. Naturally, there is no limit to the number of characters a reader can or should connect with, but the elements at play in Blue Hour occasionally combine in ways that tested my suspension of disbelief. I attribute a great deal of that particular experience to the novel’s economic length, which only allows for the most impactful incidents to appear on the page. Thus, certain events occur with almost cinematic timing that, while not unheard of, left me wondering at their likelihood.
Nevertheless, Harrison does not deny readers the satisfaction of watching her characters grow into better, healthier people, each with an enhanced ability to love. We see them at their most vulnerable, following them as they learn to trust their loved ones, themselves, and that the benefits of honest communication vastly overshadow any initial discomfort, which is only temporary, unless you unwisely let it fester into something overwhelming. With every word, Blue Hour cautions against holding back: from being seen, heard and understood; from persevering in spite of forces that would see you destroyed; and from expressing love on every possible occasion, before your chances run out.
By Tiffany Clarke Harrison
Soft Skull Press
Published April 4, 2023
Gianni Washington has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Surrey. Her writing can be found in L'Esprit Literary Review, West Trade Review, Litromagazine.com, and in the horror anthology Brief Grislys, among other places. Her debut collection of short fiction, Flowers from the Void, is forthcoming from Clash Books (US) and Serpent's Tail (UK) in Spring 2024.