First Love, by Gwendoline Riley

Reading First Love is like taking an icy shot of vodka in a world of flat, slightly warm lager. It is the story of Neve, a writer in her thirties, trapped in a marriage to an older man, Edwyn, that ranges between unhappy and downright abusive. Gwendoline Riley has spent the past decade-and-a-half detailing the unhappy lives of unhappy women, and it might be all too easy to point the finger at Neve as another inhabitant of a well-worn rut. Trapped with Edwyn, who blames everyone but himself for his violent outbursts, she is plagued with memories.

Riley’s prose has an icy elegance as it details without sentiment or schtick Neve’s chaotic and poverty-stricken childhood, dominated by her father, given to savage tantrums. This earns Neve little sympathy from her husband, who calls his attacks against her mother — rather unsettlingly — mere “incidents,” and uses her father’s cruelty as a weapon against her.

“Your father. You hated him, he was cruel to you, that’s the only relationship you understand. A man being horrible to you and you being vicious back. So that’s what you’re recreating here. I am not your father. You don’t have to go on being vicious. If you do go on being vicious, you’re out. I don’t want anything to do with you.”

It goes without saying that Edwyn is the vicious partner in this relationship, constantly looking to manipulate and to shift the blame for his anger onto Neve, using her father, her quote-unquote “impoverished” upbringing, her quote-unquote “feminism” as a stick with which to beat her.

First Love, by Gwendoline Riley

But were it just a chronicle of a grim marriage, First Love would not carry the weight that it does. Were it just a chronicle of an equally grim childhood, the novel would not pack the punch that it does. Rather, Riley’s slender novel is also a gracefully rendered meditation on memory, and how the past and the present collide in curious ways — how, no matter how far we run, we can never quite escape it. The spectre of what’s passed always comes back to haunt us. As Riley writes,

“Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it? To get to the truth, to the heart of the trouble. You wake and your dreams disband, in a mid-brain void. At the sink, in the street, other shadows crowd in: dim thugs (they are everywhere) who’d like you never to work anything out.”

It’s these dim thugs who present perhaps the greatest, and the most horrifying, indignity of all. They’re the recurrent memories of a grandmother’s filthy house. They’re the husband who uses your father’s past cruelties to accuse you of cruelty in the present. And they’re what makes Gwendoline Riley’s latest novel quite so potent.

Gwendoline Riley, First Love, Granta (London: 2017)

I was kindly provided with a review copy of First Love by Granta.

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