Riley’s novel about a poisonous partnership makes uncomfortable reading, but it’s also bleakly, blackly funny.
Borrowing the title of one of Turgenev’s best-known works is a bold statement, directly implying a kinship between Gwendoline Riley’s fifth novel and the Russian master’s tale of an ill-fated love affair. But while Turgenev’s First Love is a linear exploration of the liminal state between childhood and maturity, Riley’s First Love is a more elusive, chronologically chaotic take on the power dynamics of love.
The novel – longlisted for this year’s Bailey’s women’s prize for fiction – opens with Neve unpacking boxes in the house she shares with her husband, Edwyn. The tone is melancholic but tender, the voice less dominated by an insistent “I” than in Riley’s previous fiction. Neve recalls waiting for Edwyn, looking down from the window to the street, watching him head home, how she meets him on the street, their “cuddles” on the stairs and in bed, their kisses and pet names (“little cabbage”, “little cleany puss”). The joys of such intimacy, the sympathy between two people in love are elegantly, beautifully written; Riley’s prose shimmering and luminous.
Then she adds: “There have been other names, of course.” It’s here that we see the other Edwyn, not glanced from a window, not cuddling in bed. The Edwyn who calls her a “fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had… green acid shoved up it”. The Edwyn who believes Neve is out to annihilate him. The Edwyn who shouts “Disappointed cunt, resentful bitch” at fictional women on the television. His putrid rage and self-pity dominate the page, just as his ego dominates their living spaces. Though Riley shuns conventional plotting, First Love’s considerable narrative force derives from this toxic relationship. How long, we wonder, can Neve put herself through this kind of abuse?
Riley provides few moments in counterbalance to Edwyn’s monstrous behaviour. Their meeting, the first throes of their romance, are not elaborated upon; the odd instances of warmth shared are glossed quickly over. It’s a brutalising, intensely claustrophobic effect, one that shows two people trapped by their own emotions, appalled and attracted by one another in equal measure. While there are conscious echoes and a few nods to Turgenev in this First Love, it’s Harold Pinter who comes most readily to mind during Neve and Edwyn’s combative dialogues.
Ostensible light is offered by Neve’s newly pensioned, often darkly humorous, mother. Like Neve, she is between states, no longer with her terrible second husband, finding herself once again. She dominates their many conversations, raking over the coals of her disastrous relationships, including her marriage to Neve’s abusive father, who dies in an early section of the book. Fathers loom large and terrifying in Riley’s work, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Edwyn gleefully exploits Neve’s fear of hers: “What I get from you is your reaction to your father.” Like so much of First Love, Neve’s withdrawal and refusal to take Edwyn on directly means the onus is on the reader to consider whether Edwyn has a point.
Riley’s writing has always been clear, focused, still – rather like an Edward Hopper painting – but First Love is fuller, more refined, and underpinned by a suffocating tension. Neve’s self-detachment pushes the novel towards a conclusion that offers glimpses of happiness and ambiguous suggestions of hope, but this is an uncomfortable book – one of naked truths, of unvarnished life, written in sentences that surprise in their collision of beauty and savagery. It shows a writer at the very height of her powers, grappling and snaring her themes into a singular, devastating journey into the ungovernable reaches of the heart.