First Love – Gwendoline Riley (2017) 167 pages
Trigger warning: discussions of an abusive marriage and strong language
First Love is told from the point of view of Neve, a youngish writer married to the significantly older Edwyn. Their marriage is horrific; a battleground of manipulations, gaslighting, verbal abuse, withholding, blaming and bitterness. The blurb quotes on my paperback edition mention tenderness, humour and bittersweet truth. I can’t say I really saw these elements in the story…
“When we cuddle in bed at night, he says ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one [….]
There have been other names, of course.
‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had…green acid shoved up it.”
Yes, Edwyn is an outright misogynist who clearly despises women, blames them for his own extensive inadequacies, and seems to take his insults from the early seventeenth century.
Even when he’s not explicitly abusive, he’s monumentally detached, such as when Neve’s father dies:
“ ‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘You’re an intelligent woman. Did you imagine he was going to live for ever?’
‘We all feel guilt honey. Guilt is just what you feel when this happens.’
‘He’s dead, you’re alive, you’re guilty, it’s desolate,’ Edwyn said. ‘Sooner or later you’re going to have to get over this.’”
We then go back in time as Neve considers her upbringing and romantic past. Her father was a horrible bully, her mother given to attachments to grim men with no real reflection to prevent her from repeatedly following the same pattern. Neve moves from place to place – Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and London – and keeps her family at a distance. Eventually her mother visits after leaving her second husband:
“I stood by the door as she stepped into the flat, as she bared her teeth and crept forward. This was my home, and I was letting her into it. I’d never done that before. I haven’t since. It gave me a strange feeling. Revulsion, I suppose you’d have to call it.”
For all the emotional desperation in First Love, there is no self-pity or victimhood. Neve has a complex family, narcissistic ex-boyfriends and self-involved friends, but she never sees herself as any better than them, or any more put upon than they are.
“When I least expect it, my instincts are squalid, vengeful. And for what? What am I so outraged by? … My parents were hopeless. And? Helpless, as we all are. Life is appalling.”
First Love is definitely the strongest of Riley’s novels that I’ve read. She’s intelligent, uncompromising and incisive:
“Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it? To get to the truth, the heart of the trouble. You wake and your dreams disband, other shadows crowd in: dim thugs (they are everywhere) who’d like you never to work anything out.”
I’ve probably given a very skewed impression of First Love because I thought the central relationship so horrible and Edwyn so repulsive. It’s not relentlessly bleak or brutal; the sense I was left with after reading made me think that the ambiguous title isn’t scathing, more highly sceptical.
“People we’ve loved, or tried to: how to characterise the forms they assume?”