Review: First Love by Gwendoline Riley
First Love is a short book, composed of a series of vignettes from one woman’s life, shuffled like a deck of playing cards out of order, depicting a marriage turning from sweet to sour, a youthful flirtation with an unreliable musician, anxious relationships with a mother and a father (separated), and periods living alone.
It opens in a neat London flat, the kind of which the narrator Neve “used to look at” the back rooms of from an approach into Euston, and this one too can be externally viewed from the overground line. Before we see inside, this house is a concept of sorts, merging a sense of arrival from the past with the domesticity of present. Sash windows, brick. Things in storage, being unpacked after a move 18 months prior. A wife who reads the Standard. A husband who comes home from work each day, among the commuters trickling home from the direction of Earls Court, with the swapping of nauseating pet names awaiting his arrival (“cleany puss”). Who later pre-emptively begins vicious fights on a defensive hair-trigger, addressing his wife, who is from the North, with lines such as “I know you loathe anyone who didn’t grow up in filth, on benefits.”
Riley’s prose is precisely crafted, and it is often sharp yet characterful in observation. Her craft is exacting and neat. Unbloated. Chaffless. This has been observed in every review I have read of this book, and every glowing recommendation of it in end of year reviews. In the White Review’s roundup alone, I think around five contributors named it as a favourite of 2017. For a short novel of 167 pages, there is even room for the narrative device of repeating conversations over the dinner table to demonstrate how stuck in a loop this marriage is; resharpening knives to stick into the relationship’s old sore point, over and over again. But even dialogue containing the self-torment of not being able to let a point drop, even years later, feels deliberately just so; it is wild at the end of a tightly held leash.
For as much as this novel is another in the mold of novels examining a metropolitan marital breakdown, it is also a novel about the chopping and changing of one scene for another. It puts an expiry date on love, and asks whether this failing marriage will be just part of a series of different types of existences Neve will live spanning her adult lifetime. We see her in a series of locations. She has lived in Manchester and Glasgow before London. She lived with both parents as a child, then her mother with occasional visitations to her dad, then at college where she put a halt to fatherly visits altogether. She has had other partners. She has been sick once per week from over drinking, waking up with a series of lovers, and even once with a long stain of sick like a companion on the bed next to her. While each existence impacts the next, and childhood pain informs her adult self, this marriage, although her present focus, might just be the next bead on a string of the timeline of her life, and her husband Edwyn goads her to end it. And for a character who is at times maddeningly passive, including in the face of verbal abuse which, of course, she is not to blame for, perhaps it is at the times she has made the decision to move on – from a person, or a city – that she has truly taken a steer on her life and broken through disaffectedness.
There is an understandable emotional reticence, a closed offness, and a desire to cut ties with a past in which Neve has not always behaved in a stellar manner herself (overdrinking; leaving a flatmate without saying goodbye.) It is subtly explained that as a child, attempts to bond with both parents were brushed off. “Once I tried to kiss him […] only he wiped it off, pulled a face at my brother.” Similarly, an affectionate approach to sit beside her mother watching television and kiss her feet is rebuked. This affection is never again attempted. In their adult relationship, this mother is awkward and needy without a robust support system, and she has a tendency to impose herself on acquaintances who remain at a distance; Neve’s walls-up relationship with her verges beyond patient to a little cruel, as she assesses vulnerabilities. The father, grotesque in manner, “toddler-shaped,” prone to over-eating, abusing shop assistants, and stupidity, is a little too like a caricature in his depiction. But it’s easy to see why Neve stopped contact with him many years before he was to die. (Neve’s husband is physically ill as well as verbally abusive. His ‘curled hand’ shakes when he is upset, in another physical display paired with emotional weakness.)
There is a lot of disgust in this novel. Neve’s father is disgusted with women in much the same derogatory, generalising way her husband comes to be, telling her “Women like your mother. They are a particular breed. You will notice that.” and “Women just aren’t naturally clean, are they?” and “Your grandmother really is filthy. That house of hers. She’s very sluttish. Just look at her cuffs sometimes, or the collars of the shirts, or her jerseys. They are black with grease. We all noticed it.” When she visits his house after his death, she observes the kitchen with its plentiful stores of food, evidence his overeating has continued, is greasy and dusty.
We learn that Neve once was sick in the house she moved into with her husband, and he has never forgiven her. He brings it up regularly, in extended monologues as to how disgusting she is, and how much he resents living with a person who would do such a thing. One horrifying scene depicts the morning of aftermath, and the cruelty with which he spoke to her, while nauseous and confused as to what had happened the night before. “Get back in the sewer. Get back in the sewer, scum.” She is much younger than he (although the specifics of this are left undefined.) It is likely he is intimidated by what he sees as a difference in lifestyle. The kernel of vulnerability becomes lost within the barrage of rage, which feels a shame, but generally in keeping with a novel in which the most intimate vulnerabilities are buried in either anger or numbness, unlikely to be truly excavated by the characters themselves or another person, as they struggle to connect – with the prospect of cutting ties entirely always dangling. Edwyn’s words to her are frequently manipulative. When she reflects on her father’s domestic abuse, and that her mother recorded it, he responds, “Oh, she kept a list, did she?” with scepticism. Later, she describes a way of managing these conversations, hoping to minimise the potential of him flaring-up – in a similar manner to introspective analysis of conversations in Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, and other novels featuring domestic abuse. Often he is downright vile and accusatory, pinning what he considers disgusting behaviour to her upbringing. He pours scorn on her upbringing in the north.
“Is that a northern thing, do you think?” he said
“Is what a northern thing?”
“Well, you enjoy being sick on yourself, don’t you? I’ve never known anyone else who enjoys being sick on themselves.”
“So it’s a reasonable question then, isn’t it? Is that what people from the north do? Is that something you find acceptable, or civilised, or fun? Perhaps it is. I would’t know.”
…and on he rages, with variations on the theme. It strikes me as a bit over the top, and a bit… weird. Other novels with abusive domestic dialogue, such as Daniel Magariel’s One of the Boys (which I praised here) or Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, manage to convey relationships which are just as menacing and undermining in a more authentic manner. When Neve herself takes the same view of the place she grew up in, she admits it. “Was anybody clean back then? When I think of my friends’ houses, they weren’t any less filled with shit. Here were cold, cluttered bedrooms, greased sheets. The kitchens were a horror show, ceilings bejewelled with pus-covered animal fat, washing-up sitting in water which was spangled like phlegm. Our neighbour’s house, where we went after school, was an air locked chamber smelling of bins which hadn’t been put out. There was a long skid mark, I remember, on one of the towels in their bedroom. It was there for three years. So – I did grow up in shit. It was no slander. Shit, filth, stupidity, dishonesty.” Fucking hell, it isn’t half grim up north, apparently. At first I wondered if Neve had imbibed her husband’s view of her upbringing, internalising his abusive perspective. But this level of detail, down to marks on a towel, suggests not entirely so. Just like Neve’s father and her husband share a remarkably similar view of women being dirty, so she shares the view with her husband that her upbringing was a cesspit. For a writer able to be so crisp and precise elsewhere, I have to wonder why filth and dirt – of northern households – is underlined in such a vehement manner by Riley. I think back to the cinematic opening, approaching the little London flat from the train tracks, contrasting it with the permeating disgust. She brings it with her – she is sick in her new home. She cannot escape this assessment of her past no matter how distanced she becomes from her family. Perhaps that is the point Riley is making here, of inescapability of some kind, no matter who lies in bed next to us, in which city. “Manchester inspires failures of the imagination,” she quoted once in an interview, for her previous novel. I’m not sure this is a North/South divide that Mary Gaskell would recognise.
There is a section where Neve stays in a writer’s residency in France, and these pages contain some untranslated French. Two of my least favourite writing tropes, in intercourse on one page. However, it serves as an illumination of a different lifestyle; when she fantasises about leaving her husband mid-argument, it is to the hotel she stayed at before her morning journey across the channel her mind flits. Another escape, another chapter of life behind different walls – or the briefest imagining of one, anyway.
I end the novel with questions. I wonder what happened to sour the marriage; if Edwyn’s abuse gradually eroded the sickly pet names, or if Neve’s eventual distancing started before she herself recognised it. While I struggled at times to place the sections, in non-linear order, I enjoy the puzzle of piecing together the narrative which centres around Neve’s motivations; at times maddeningly placid, at other times possibly wilfully obscure. I’m not sure the age gap is explored as thoroughly as it might have in Edwyn’s self-conscious griping, shouting at Neve “I’m not your father” and wonder if this is another occasion where Riley’s elegant prose style had potential to have drawn out a more satisfying sparring in subtler, less cliched dialogue. First Love has many affirming reviewers. I’m not sure I found this, on the whole, a satisfying read so much as a maddening one; drawn in by a writing style, left cold by its purposing. But under the layers of filth and muck laid on thick, and beyond the wranglings of the central relationship, it remains strongest as an examination of checking out of relationships altogether, or whether it’s a possibility to move on; from locations, the past, relationships, and from vulnerable parts of the interior self.