At the heart of Gwendoline Riley’s short, dark, funny novel is a marriage in which bullying self-pity and perplexed self-abasement collide in a series of savage little jousts that ought to be unbearable to witness, but are in fact mesmerizing and perversely tender. Neve is a writer in her 30s, recently moved to London from the north of England. Edwyn, much older, is some kind of cultural entrepreneur, a disappointed man suffering from a weak heart, painful joints and a biliousness that spares nobody, including himself: “There’s nothing nice about me. I don’t have a nice bone in my body.” The only grounds for disputing this cheerful self-appraisal are that his tirades against Neve (prompted mainly by her mere existence) come over more as truculence than abuse. What you hear in them, beyond the low-grade misogyny and general nastiness, is the helpless rage of a clever, colicky, middle-aged baby: “Just so you know,” he tells her, “I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew.” In better moods, he allows her to hold his hand, and calls her his “little compost heap.”
The question, of course, is why the relatively sane and functional Neve chooses — at times even begs — to remain with this man. It’s the question that gives the book its plot (to the extent that it has one), sending Neve back over the key relationships in her past that have shaped her reflexes and left her susceptible to Edwyn’s less-than-obvious charms. A rogues’ gallery of lovers, friends and family ensues, detailed miniatures full of comic touches of malice and exasperated affection. Sharpest among them are those of her parents, each a study in repression and ineffectuality.
Neve’s father, who dies alone of overeating — “the brave business of self-solace everywhere in evidence” — is a sort of aspiring petty tyrant, who does his best to terrorize anyone weaker than himself: children, shop assistants, “young people without authority or status.” Having finally succeeded in alienating his own daughter, he tries to reverse course, besieging her with concert invitations. Her refusals merely stimulate further efforts: “It was like trying to deny an excited octopus.” Neve’s mother, meanwhile, is a shambles of wild impulsiveness and cringing passivity who chases after companionship with a hunger matched only by her resignation to the inevitability of failure: “I stand there ‘looking approachable’ all night!” she says, describing an art opening. “But no one approaches!” Under scrutiny, her haplessness reveals deep habits of avoidance that have led her both into her marriage and out of it, with disastrous consequences for her offspring. Neve’s reflections on the subject give you a flavor of the book’s jabbing, mordant humor: “Not to think, not to connect: Marry an insane bully. Simper at him. Not to be killed: Get away from him. And her children? Her issue? How did they fit into her scheme? As sandbags? Decoys?”
There’s a strain of English writing that exists, broadly speaking, in defiance of “Englishness” in its generally accepted sense of crippling reserve and awful weather. D. H. Lawrence wanted to “wash off England, the oldness and grubbiness and despair.” But there’s another strain (early Jean Rhys comes to mind, with her cleareyed heroines staring at the abyss in rented rooms) that embraces that gloom, offering, by way of redemption, not sex and sunshine but style and wit. “First Love,” with its haiku-like evocations of grotty British cityscapes, its fine ear for the ways in which love inverts itself into cruelty, its preference for scrupulous psychological detail over grandiose epic sweep, is a stellar example of this tradition, and proof of its continued vitality.