It feels like I’ve grown up reading Gwendoline Riley novels, though the truth is more like I’ve grown up alongside them. I was seventeen when Cold Water came out, just a little younger than the main character, and Riley’s characters age with her. I loved the novels she published through Jonathan Cape, and now that she’s moved to Granta, there’s no sign that she’s letting up her consistency.
First Love is a novel about marriage, and brought to mind Jenny Offills’ magnificent novel The Department of Speculation, not least in its sparseness of language. Riley has constructed a novel that may, on the outside, seem autobiographical (in that it deals with a thirty-something writer as a central character, and spans several cities including Manchester and London, which Riley has called home), but is perhaps far more interesting when comparisons to her own life are shook off. Many people will look at this novel from the outside, and many reviewers have drawn comparisons with Riley’s own life. But this is far more interesting than that.
Neve is married to Edwyn, an older man, and we watch their marriage collapse again and again and again, as Edwyn’s wildly unpredictable temper keeps their home a battleground, full of barbed comments, spiteful arguments, and abusive behaviour. Neve often says how Edwyn’s behaviour, abhorrent as it is, is caused by an illness, although the extent to which that is true is left unclear. In the end, like most events in the story, we are at Neve’s mercy in the telling. During the most heated arguments between her and Edwyn, she sometimes even comes to agree with him, making for some of the more upsetting moments in the novel.
Riley keeps a tight focus on Neve and Edwyn’s relationship, focusing only on a handful of other characters, all of whom are defined only in their relationship to Neve, including her mother, who has a new found freedom after breaking up with her partner.
It’s a brutal book, and it will stay with you long after the hundred and sixty pages are over, but Riley manages to inject it with a thin vein of black humour. It’s often a welcome respite from some of the darkest recesses that the book finds itself in, and something of a trademark of Riley’s.
Any Cop?: I’d be surprised if, at the end of the year, this wasn’t one of my favourite books. A beautifully written exploration of a marriage teetering on the edge.