Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction 2017 First Love by Gwendoline Riley is one difficult read. Not because it is a lengthy book or in fact because it is particularly complex but rather due to the subject matter the reader is plunged into.
Don’t let the title fool you – this is not a gushing love story. That was plainly clear when Riley compares falling in love to falling down. Negative, involuntary and painful.
Riley’s protagonist Neve is married to an older man, Edwyn, who is suffering from ‘myocardial infarction‘ and a mystery disease which seems him flit from intense happiness to intense brutal lows. Unfortunately, the reader doesnt get to see much of his happiness. We quickly see Edwyn’s anger toward Neve which derive from one night where she ended up getting drunk at a house party. Now, what actually happened that night seems to be unclear what with Edwyn and Neve’s fractured accounts however, Edwyn will not let her forget this one time where he ended up having to look after her as opposed to the other way around. He is deeply resentful of her background and having to financially support her suggesting that before they met she was anything but stable:
‘Independent. It’s just a brain-dead feminist flag to fly for women who haven’t got a man.’.
Edwyn’s abusive comments toward Neve makes for uncomfortable reading.
Riley interrupts this abuse with taking us back to Neve’s other relationships with other man and of course with her parents. At first, I had a lot of sympathy for Neve considering she was brought up by a physically and verbally abusive father and a mother who seemed to be on her second abusive marriage and failed to show her any physical affection. This sympathy deepened as Riley flits back to Neve’s current relationship and how her husband cannot even stand to kiss her. It seems Neve is deprived of all love – physical and emotional.
That being said, as I re-read certain passages I started to wonder about Neve’s behaviour. When her mother finally escapes her second marriage and is nervous about starting life afresh Neve seems as though she couldn’t care less. Further, she fails to conjure up any oomph when fighting with Edwyn. Now, for those of you who have not read this and taken my summary as the basis of the book may you may say that is because she has been beaten into submission and she cannot fight or care anymore however, there are glimmers within this novel which make me think otherwise. That could be because of the way Riley flits between Neve’s previous life and her current life in a non-chronigical order or because that is what Riley intends the reader to think.
Overall, an darkly moving novel which will have me thinking for some time.