‘First Love’ is about Neve, a writer in her mid-30s who is married to an older man named Edwyn, and it tells the story of what her life was like before.
Edwyn is a nasty man. When Neve, our narrator, hears that her father has died, she recalls how her father beat her mother. Edwyn is unsympathetic as Neve reads from a document listing the abuse that her mother endured from her father that she had to write for her solicitor a few years after: ‘Slapped, strangled, thumbs twisted. Hit about the head while breast-feeding’. Edwyn’s response?
‘“It’s very interesting to me. That she’d remember, quite so clearly, all of these… what might you call them?”
“Assaults,” I said.
He tilted his head, musing on whether to allow that.
“Well – incidents,” he said.’
His attitude towards women is spelled out in all its hideousness, ‘Women are insane, and manipulative, and sick.’ He flips personality in a split second and it becomes clear as the novella (it’s a short one at 167 pages) progresses that her marriage to Edwyn is on a similar track to her parents’ disastrous relationship. Although Edwyn aggressively denies this and blames Neve for everything: ‘Your father. You hated him, he was cruel to you […] So that’s what you’re recreating here.’ Neve ruminates on another argument: ‘It continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making, whenever he was sharp with me […] I wonder now how much he even noticed, hopped up as he was. No, I don’t believe he did notice. That was the lesson, I think. That none of this was personal.’ It tensely rubs against the grain of the narrative as a whole.
But don’t worry, it’s not all bleak and grim! Neve’s mother is sweet, naïve and cheerful who makes regular appearances in the book, but, notably, it will often be a year in Neve’s real-life time until she sees her again, ‘Purple is my mother’s ‘favourite colour’ and that day her nails were painted magenta and her lipstick was a shimmering mauve. Under her coat she wore a purple jumper and brown checked ski-pants.’ She pursues an unsuitable man and marries numerous times.
Gwendoline Riley’s poetic descriptions are the gauze to the readers’ worries about Neve: ‘Years ago: I remember: the sky’s cold threat. Dishrag clouds, leaking light’.
Its title evokes a romantic and sentimental tale, but, for me, I immediately thought of Samuel Beckett’s ‘First Love’ short story, so I felt prepared a bit for its brazen curiosity in, and frequent commentary on, bodily functions.
Gwendoline Riley’s ‘First Love’ will make you feel something to your core and you will ruminate on it for a long time afterwards.
It reminded me a bit of ‘The Gathering’ by Anne Enright and ‘Nobody is Ever Missing’ by Catherine Lacey (also published by Granta!).
‘First Love’ is powerful in its delicacy.
‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley was published by Granta on 2nd February 2017, £12.99 hardback.