Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

"First Love" by Gwendoline Riley (Granta, 2017)

About 165 pages long. For a page or 2 all seems ok between Neve and Edwyn, but on p.4 there's an outburst

'You have to get behind the project, Neve, or get out.'
'Get ... behind ... the project ... or ... get out!'
'What's "the project"?'
'The project is not winding me up. The project is not trying to get in my head and make me feel like shit all the time!'

Why on earth did she marry him? Why is she still with him? That's the point.

She sees her mother on and off. Her mother was physically abused by her husband. She remarried at 52, then divorced after 10 years because her husband was boring. Her father dies. We learn what he was like. Neve goes to his funeral where she meets her brother who she's not seen since she left home. She visits her father's house - "The house felt very lonely. Like a lonely child's lair, really. The brave business of self-solace everywhere in evidence (to my eyes, anyway). His comforts. His acquisitions. Stores of treats. Discarded novelties." (p.34).

Chapters jump back and forth, gathering extended anecdotes. When she was 20 she worked on Oldham Street - "an outfall back then. Fulginous nooks yielded uncertain streams of piss, on that first block of money shops, bookies, bus-stop drunks" (p.55). For 3 years, a few days a year she met up with Michael, a 28 year old US-based minor singer.

I have thought, sometimes, that there should be more to getting along with people than negotiating with this jumpy primordial goo. But no - there often isn't. I back-pedalled a little.
'I just can't see myself in a couple,' I said. 'Watching box sets all night long. I can't put the hours in.'
I was being fatuous, but that was fine as it turned out - he didn't notice, or ignored that, instead he reached across the table. Dreadful, what was about to happen. The heavy fall of the same old machinery.
'Um ... Could you not see yourself, watching television - with me? he said.

Neve won a 7 week fellowship in France. She's said to be a writer. We read about the eve of the journey across and the arrival at her accommodation and that's all. On p.126 we get more details about the overall timeline - she moved in with Edwyn in January, about 2 years before the book's most recent events. In April maybe she spewed up after a party, an event Edwyn never lets her forget. In September she got a job. Her father died in January. She and Edwyn were married in June. Edwyn says he's ill - heart problems. That and him being the one who brings the money in are the excuses he uses to get his own way. He says that "Women are sex-obsessed ... women are insane, and manipulative, and sick" (p.131). He thinks that Neve gets him and her father confused. He's skilled at petty arguments.

The mother character, slightly dotty, comes over clearly and the relationship that Neve has with her is believable. The Edwyn character and relationship is far more problematic. I can only assume that they're meant to be 2 broken people in a marriage of convenience. Perhaps Neve really did have more mental problems in the past than is made explicit here.

The relationships are all precarious, half-hearted, maintained by habit and momentum if that. Neve's rather feckless. Talking to Edwyn she realises that she's Finding out what you already know. Repeatingly. That's not sane, is it? And while he might have said that this was how he was, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I'd started making, whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn't how I spoke. (Except it was.) ... For table conversation back then, I'd got used to asking Edwyn questions, either about himself or about poets or painters or composers ... I was maintaining this keen and appreciative front as a way to keep calm, or to distract him. Like - I don't know - throwing some sausages at a guard dog (p.108-9). By now she's 33. "My parents were hopeless. And? Helpless, as we all are. Life is appalling. My father ate himself to death. Isn't that enough? (p.121)

Other reviews

  • Stuart Evers (while Turgenev’s First Love is a linear exploration of the liminal state between childhood and maturity, Riley’s First Love is a more elusive, chronologically chaotic take on the power dynamics of love. ...Though Riley shuns conventional plotting, First Love’s considerable narrative force derives from this toxic relationship. ... Riley provides few moments in counterbalance to Edwyn’s monstrous behaviour. )
  • Joanna Kavenna (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. ...She takes a familiar theme of midlife minor angst and focuses in, closer and closer, until the banal becomes surreal, even beautiful. )
  • James Lasdun (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.)
  • Susannah Butter (an engrossing novel and Riley’s writing shines through.)
  • Stuart Kelly (The last moments the reader spends with Neve might be a yearning, and might be a dismissal. It might be the end, or it might be another caesura in a cycle of needing to be and hating to be alone)


  1. Dear Tim

    I remember studying Turgenev's 'First Love' for my Russian A Level many moons ago. Perhaps Riley's title is ironic rather than iconic.

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish

    1. I've not read Turgenev. I know I should. It's gaps like that which make me leave writing real book reviews to others.