First Love may be short, but it packs a lot in. Far from the dreamy idealised nature of one’s first sweetheart as the title may suggest, this is a novel that explores adult love. The kind that comes with baggage, life experience and challenges. The kind of relationship between two people, broken and scarred but still living and hopeful, who know that any partnership is about ‘accommodation.’ But that doesn’t stop it being difficult, as Gwendoline Riley portrays with candour and succinct potency in her fifth and latest book.
For Neve, a writer in her mid-30s married to an older man, Edwyn, their marriage and negotiation of ‘accommodation’ into one another’s worlds becomes a battleground. ‘It’s freedom that counts’ he says, believing her love to be ‘smothering…like a swarm.’ But with marriage comes a relinquishing of some independence and liberty. The tension between these two factors underpins the story, and Riley successfully portrays the tussling interplay between them, along with the past and present, and Neve and Edwyn themselves.
Not that their marriage was ever a romantic one, but entered into ‘against both of our instincts, I think, but undertaken on his solicitor’s advice, all part of putting his affairs in order’. But now, as her voice is squashed and her identity with it, she wonders ‘Had I been very naïve? Was this what life was like, really, and everyone knew it but me?’
Memories of her abusive father, self-absorbed mother and delusional grandma hit Neve hard. Time doesn’t help,’ she says. You forget, for years, even, but it’s still there. A zone of feeling. A cold shade.’ And things do repeat themselves. Edwyn is often hostile and bullying, just like Neve’s father. On the first page he calls her ‘A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had . . . green acid shoved up it.’ But that doesn’t stop her persisting with things, and through it figure out the chaos of life. In a quest ‘to get to the truth, to the heart of the trouble’ she makes lists of actions and strategies such as ‘Don’t let your mind get colonised … Don’t act like a baby. ‘I will not be a cat.’ But finding the truth of oneself isn’t easy, our imaginations mistaken, our internal world mismatched to the external, and the dreams might not be real: ‘You are the girl that never came true.’
As well as this intimate exploration of independence, dependence and interdependence in a love relationship, Riley touches on all interactions. Be they families or friends, other lives are formed and people fade away, both often due to circumstance. Although sensitive and honest, this book isn’t whimsical: it was only when her ‘best friend’ Bridie moved abroad that ‘this stubborn alliance could dissolve.’ The restrained perceptive tones expose some of the vulnerability of social connections.
Written not in a neat flow but threading through vignettes, Riley mirrors the pattern of love and life as a series of ‘intense, confusing and frustrating experiences.’ Despite the bleakness, it’s often funny, and Riley’s acute portrayal of humanity shines through the dense shadow. Keen and sharp, all encompassing as well as uncomfortably personally acute, First Love is a novel to fly through quickly – and ponder over for a while to come.
Published 2 February 2017 by Granta.