Reviewed by Eleanor Franzén
The New York Times Book Review runs a regular feature called ‘By the Book’, a kind of questionnaire for celebrated authors about their reading habits. Recently, the feminist writer Roxane Gay was featured. In answer to one of the questions—“Which genres do you especially enjoy reading, and which do you avoid?”—she replies, “I love literary fiction so long as it is not about (a) writers, (b) sad white people in bad marriages or (c) sad white writers in bad marriages.” Gwendoline Riley’s novel First Love ticks box c; it is about Neve, a writer from Liverpool, and her marriage to Edwyn, an older man. Their marriage is vexed, to say the least: there is some sweetness and canoodling, but an awful lot of it is harsh and even cruel. Yet what makes First Love more than just a story about Sad White People (trademark pending) is the way Riley preserves a semblance of impartiality. We’re not meant to feel sorry for Neve, exactly, or to see her as a victim; we’re meant to understand why she made the decisions that led her to this place, and why she makes the decisions that keep her here.
To do that, Riley has to go back into Neve’s family history: her father is just as emotionally manipulative as Edwyn but more overtly childlike. (On a visit, thinking that he’ll like it if they share something, Neve offers to forego her veganism and partake of his bowl of ice cream. Instead of being pleased, her father scowls territorially over his scoops of chocolate; to pacify him, she has to draw back her spoon, and her attempt at connecting.) Much of Neve’s childhood is painful to read about, as is Edwyn’s reaction to it:
‘Listen to this,’ I said. ‘Slapped, strangled, thumbs twisted. Hit about head while breast-feeding. Hit about head while suffering migraine. Several kicks at base of spine. Hot pan thrown, children screaming.’
‘Oh, she kept a list, did she?’ Edwyn said.“‘Not at the time. She had to write it down for her solicitor. Not that anyone listened.’
[…]‘She must have a very good memory, that’s all. Some people do. […]I’m interested. It’s very interesting to me. That she’d remember, quite so clearly, all of these…what might you call them?’
‘Assaults,’ I said.
He tilted his head, musing on whether to allow that. ‘Well—incidents,’ he said.
This conversation occurs early in the book, and it sets us up to expect the nastiness that is to follow in Neve’s and Edwyn’s own relationship: mostly verbal, but with occasional flashbacks to a night of breathtaking physical violence. It is upsettingly easy to predict, to foresee, but look again at how Riley manages it. It’s all conveyed through the language; Edwyn’s gaslighting is masked as mild rationality, but through his act of renaming, he changes how Neve perceives her mother’s memories and, by extension, her own. If you have lived through this kind of manipulation, from a parent or a partner, you will quite possibly feel the hairs going up on the back of your neck; it is an unmistakable rhetorical trick. But it is very difficult to convey the effect of it properly in fiction, how obvious and banal it looks to an outsider but how insidiously it works on a person who trusts their abuser. Riley nails it.
She also works in some queasy humour. Neve’s mother is characterised mercilessly; her needy whine, peppered with italics (“I thought I could, I thought, I love Glasgow so much and I am retired now so why not take advantage, having a daughter who lives there…”), drifts through the pages. Graham Greene once wrote something to the effect that it is easy to wage war against the beautiful and successful, but impossible to do so against the ugly and pathetic, and some of that sentiment drips through in Neve’s mum. Her delusions about herself—that she is cultured and independent and empowered, when in reality she is lonely, boring, and hampered by old-fashioned terror about sex and relationships—are so transparent, and yet they provoke such pity. She’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s impossible to see her purely as a figure of fun; she is also, simultaneously, a terrifying black hole of emotion, and a lost old woman. And, again, Riley mostly achieves this complexly layered effect of characterisation simply through letting her speak.
First Love is a short but devastating sucker punch of a book. It derives its power from observation: instead of having a clean-cut moral or “point”, it simply explores the formative emotional experiences of one woman, and shows us the mechanics of the situation she ends up in. The ending isn’t exactly hopeful, but then it’s not despairing, either; like a lot of the rest of the book, it just is. It’s up to the reader to decide how, or whether, the end slots into place. If you, too, are weary of books about ‘Sad White People and Their Awful Marriages’, try refreshing yourself with First Love; you might just be convinced, like me, that there remains something interesting to say on the subject.
Eleanor blogs at Elle Thinks and is currently writing her first novel.
Gwendoline Riley, First Love (Granta, 2017) ISBN 978-1783783182, hardback, 176 pages.
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