An exquisite closeup of a toxic marriage interrogates the ephemeral nature of everyday existence.
As Lawrence Durrell wrote, each novel is sui generis and to speak of “the novel” is fundamentally absurd. Instead, there is an infinite quantity of novels, an infinite quantity of novelists. A novelist can portray reality as a rough facsimile of our world, or as a fantastical realm governed by a super-being called Wherim. Yet each novel – realistic or fantastical or both or neither – offers an invented world, crafted by a lone mortal in the hope, perhaps, of entertaining or consoling or distracting other lone mortals. It’s a bizarre enterprise indeed! Why bother? Why care about the novel?
This brings us to the work of Gwendoline Riley – a fascinating novelist who has spent the last 15 years relaying the inner lives of disaffected women. In Riley’s first novel, Cold Water (which won a 2002 Betty Trask award), her young narrator worked in a bar, where “delusionals” came to douse their agonies; nothing happened, but this was entirely the point. In Joshua Spassky (winner of a 2008 Somerset Maugham award), Riley zeroed in on the baroque enterprise of loving another person: the vicissitudes and moments of doomed abandon. Parents in Riley’s books are usually hopeless and/or dead; their bereaved children struggle with ambiguous feelings. Her narrators obsessively analyse words and gestures, trying to render them meaningful. Invariably, they are disappointed.
The narrator of First Love, Neve, is a woman in her mid-30s who marries an older man called Edwyn. Riley is also in her mid-30s and is married to an older man, the poet Alan Jenkins. It would be specious to assume on this basis that the book is autobiographical. Where would fact end and fiction begin? Who would be the judge? Riley’s emphasis is on the quotidian experience of her characters – unbearable yet ordinary. Neve describes the teeming acrimony of her marriage; she also reminisces about her parents’ diabolical marriage. Her father was weird and controlling and then dead; her mother is vague and diffuse but still alive. Sometimes Edwyn accuses Neve of reenacting her own family dysfunction, but he is quite wrong: their marriage enacts an altogether new variety of dysfunction. The blackly comic joke is that this might be the best you can hope for. Neve is plagued by memories – a “filthy” grandmother, bullying father, stupidity and dishonesty. “Time doesn’t help,” she says:
You forget, for years, even, but it’s still there. A zone of feeling. A cold shade. I barely drink now, but when I do, sometimes I see so clearly how nothing’s changed. Not one thing. About who I am and what I am. I don’t have to be drunk. When I least expect it, my instincts are squalid, my reactions are squalid, vengeful. And for what? What am I so outraged by?
One answer to Neve’s question might be: everything and nothing, at the same time. Her father has died but fathers die. She has no money but she has a warm place to stay, a roof over her head. First-person self-analytical narrators are always a risk, narcissism is an available charge. Riley is alert to this possibility; at one point, Neve interrupts her inner stream with a peremptory “And?” She continues: “Helpless as we all are. Life is appalling … Isn’t that enough?” Yet it isn’t enough, for Neve nor for anyone else. She is trying to understand herself and the surrounding world; this is an enterprise, even a quest “to get to the truth, to the heart of the trouble”. She makes lists, formulates strategies: “Don’t let your mind get colonised … Don’t act like a baby. Don’t be a cat … ” These are sad and funny and they don’t work. Riley’s prose is deceptively simple, drawing you further and further into the labyrinth of the self. How can she establish the “truth” of her memories? Meanwhile, the present is constantly destabilised by arguments and Edwyn’s shifting moods. Everything goes wrong; then Neve and Edwyn are abruptly reconciled:
We lay in the darkness for a while. Then he stroked my back a bit, my shoulders, with his curled up hand.
“I love you. Little one. Little Neve. I do.” …
I let some peaceful seconds pass, before I said it back.
When dawn breaks, it begins again. Towards the end of the book, Neve says: “Considering your life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it?” She has one finite life, one opportunity to fathom the chaos and strangeness, and there is nothing else. This is everything and nothing indeed: the most preposterous element of lived experience, and yet the most ordinary. Furthermore, why consider anything at all, when you perceive that it will vanish – and soon? Everyone resides within this paradox; it is all we know. This links back to our opening questions: why bother, why care? “I don’t even care if you care,” says Riley. “Because I do.” She takes a familiar theme of midlife minor angst and focuses in, closer and closer, until the banal becomes surreal, even beautiful. The effect is beguiling, like viewing everyday objects through a magnifying glass, or miniaturism for existentialists. First Love is an exquisite and combative piece of news from nowhere – which is everywhere, too