Riley once described her writing as “picking at scabs and lying awake”. In this, her fifth novel, the visceral discomfort is deeply compelling.
Newcomers to Gwendoline Riley might be forgiven for thinking that First Love follows the trend for fiction that is autobiography by another name. It would be more accurate to say that literary fashion has caught up with Riley, who wrote her 2002 debut, Cold Water, at university in the north-west of England, where she grew up after her parents divorced. Plot-light, icily lyrical, it follows Carmel, a 20-year-old Manchester barmaid who writes in her spare time. Her unsentimental accounts of drinking and casual sex are overshadowed by the memory of her manipulative father, now dead, and the fussy attentions of her mother, whose survival of her husband’s abuse earns her little sympathy.
This dysfunctional family dynamic recurred over the novels that followed, each told by female writers who aged in step with Riley. The energy of these narratives usually comes from unhappy relationships, with shards of memory piercing the otherwise impassive narration. Even if Riley hadn’t once described her work as “picking at scabs and lying awake and mulling over things that it would really be much more cheerful not to mull over”, you might guess that she writes what she knows. Yet she takes care to keep our eyes on her art: when one interviewer pointed out that she seems “incorrigibly drawn back again and again to your own life, or a life like yours”, she responded, “Well, in order to make statements like that you’d need to know the first thing about my life . . .”
First Love, her fifth novel, is narrated with characteristic foreboding: an off-licence “whose hot-pink sign said OOZE” is a typical detail. Neve (another writer) is isolated in London in her mid-thirties, having recently – following the death of her abusive father – entered into an asexual marriage of convenience with a manipulative and irritable older man, Edwyn, who has heart problems and joint pain. Prone to outbursts about “the north” and women who expect too much from marriage, his occasional tenderness (“Lovely Mrs Pusskins! Prr prr”) only makes him more sinister, not least when he downplays the violence Neve’s father inflicted on her mother (what Edwyn terms “incidents” Neve calls “assaults”).
I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t help going straight to Wikipedia, which – for what it’s worth – says that Riley is married to an older man who grew up in the same part of London where Edwyn describes spending his childhood. Edwyn’s presence in the novel melds with the looming figure of Neve’s father, described in flashback as she cross-cuts the story of her marriage with an account of the years preceding it. We see him force Neve’s vegetarian brother to eat meat and lie for attention’s sake about his affiliation to the National Front.
Riley’s narrators are always afraid to seem needy and Neve takes care to match the tone of an email or text message so as not so lose face, whether she is flat-hunting or resuming a fling with an American musician (another recurring figure in Riley’s novels). This is partly why Neve’s “yapping” mother comes in for such flak, her words reported with distancing disdain (“Purple is my mother’s ‘favourite colour’”). She listens coolly to her tales of a split from a lover and hopes of meeting a new man, but Neve’s troubles show she doesn’t follow her own hard-headed advice; this is a novel haunted by the horror of parallels.
One appeal of autofiction – a label Riley would probably scorn – is that it offers writers an escape from invention, but the more Riley writes, the more it seems like a considered aesthetic choice. She has talked about her hatred for the word “imagination”, which is “a real blight on fiction” (her response to magic realism: “yuck”).
Compared with fiction, memoir is always contested ground; a novel is more slippery but nevertheless can carry the force of truths that can’t be gainsaid. And a good novelist can get away with writing more or less the same book over and over again, perhaps in defiance of whatever it is that, in her own formulation, keeps Riley awake, picking scabs. The result for the reader is visceral, uncomfortable and almost impossible to turn away from.