Book review: Gwendoline Riley’s First Love – a look at the frozen wastes of relationships

Gwendoline Riley’s fifth novel is another bleak portrait of domestic abuse but its sharp prose and dark humour shine out.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley is published by Granta.
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Gwendoline Riley is compulsively arrested by familial and affective relationships – by how we manage them, how they shape us, how they involve us in love and its perversion.

In her debut novel of 2002, Cold Water, she told the story of Carmel, a 20-year-old barmaid in Manchester who writes in her spare time, indulges in heavy drinking and rash romantic liaisons, and spends much of the novel reflecting, with gelid and restrained lyricism, on her dead and brutally manipulative father, and on the relentless ministrations of her abused mother.

In her subsequent work, Riley has returned to such questions with discomfiting obsessiveness – she once likened her writing to “picking at scabs and lying awake and mulling over things that it would really be much more cheerful not to mull over”. But the picking and the mulling has continued.

Her third novel, Joshua Spassky (2008), tackled the sense of opacity and bewilderment that can characterise the experience of romantic love; and in her latest, First Love, she returns to the sense of unmoored isolation that can characterise a supposedly intimate and anchored life.

The novel chronicles the inner world of Neve, a writer in her mid-30s who has recently married Edwyn, a manipulative and bullying older man who suffers from joint pain and a heart condition, hates being kissed, regards sex as “Just one more thing that women want from you”, and considers all women “insane, and manipulative, and sick”.

He routinely subjects Neve to remorseless attacks on her character, drifts into sudden moments of sinister tenderness (“Lovely Mrs Pussykins! Prr Prr”) and regards the series of assaults that Neve’s tyrannical father inflicted on her mother as merely “incidents”.

Neve’s experience of living with Edwyn prompts her to reflect on various episodes and relationships from her past. We learn of a sporadic entanglement with a singer whom she met as a student in Manchester; of her strained relationship with her mother (who is possessed of a kind of giddy mania, is almost ebullient disappointed by the shortcomings of others, and whose visit to stay with her daughter while she (Neve) is living in Glasgow provides one of the most grimly amusing sections of the book); and of her moronic and viciously imposing father, who, before eating himself to death, fancies himself “a great explainer of the world”, and forces his vegetarian son – whom he once punched in the face – to consume meat.

Of all the dreadful men in this book – whom Riley's female characters feel they must appease – it is he who appears to radiate the most terrible influence. But among the many strengths of First Love are the attentiveness to the various forms that such toxic masculinity can take, and the sense of the complicated ways in which we can all be complicit in its existence.

“Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination,” says Neve late in the book, and as she proceeds with her examination of herself and others, it is seldom clear that any one party is wholly responsible for the damaging modes of behaviour they engage in, or the distressing situations in which they find themselves.

Indeed, the force that operates most pervasively and powerfully in this novel is that of fear – a word whose cognates and synonyms appear throughout Neve’s narrative with unignorable frequency.

Yet Riley undertakes this project of imaginative generosity with such detachment and restraint that her tale never yields to the temptation to offer cosy explanations or warm exonerations. And it is this sense of glacially delicate consideration – this icy and sardonic assessment of the world – that lends the book much of its emotional, comic and aesthetic richness.

The world Riley creates is an unhappy and uncomfortable one. But it is also compelling, and full of the redemptive and affirming qualities of humour, attentiveness and freshness of perception.

She writes about the irritations of familial and romantic relationships with wonderful comic insight, and her prose is almost always sharp, bright, arresting and resonant.

When Edwyn works from home, Neve sees him “bracketed to the dining table”; when she walks the streets she moves “into the throat of the wind”; music from a bar reaches her as “a gulping beat”; when she is in her bathroom in Glasgow she sees a cat “decanting herself onto the cistern, then onto the toilet seat”.

The strength of this writing imbues what is essentially a static and ruminative book with immense vitality and emotional force. It also keeps Riley’s now familiar themes feeling urgent, disruptive, new – and makes this reader hope that she keeps on picking at that scab.

Matthew Adams is a regular contributor to The Review