It’s not often that I loathe a novel. Even if I don’t jell with a book I’ll most often quietly put it aside thinking someone else might get something out of it. But reading Gwendoline Riley’s novel “First Love” made me angry. You may think this strong emotional reaction would mean it’s worth seeking it out for yourself. You’re by all means free to do so, but I think you’d be wasting your time because I don’t think this novel has anything to say. The reason it stirs such malice within me is because I think it’s a terrible missed opportunity. It portrays the life of a writer named Neve, her marriage to an older man Edwyn, the difficult people on the fringes of their lives and their vicious arguments. The central question of this book is: why are the people we love horrible to us sometimes? It’s an aching concern that almost all of us will experience to varying degrees throughout our lives. But this novel offers no answers. It is instead a claustrophobic tedious story which purposely withholds letting you know the central characters, but still flaunts all the violent machinations of their egos leaving the reader feeling like they’ve been emotionally vomited over.
I felt like Gwendoline Riley didn’t give any sense of understanding for her characters and therefore she didn’t earn the right to thrust in my face all of their dirty laundry. I’m not saying I don’t want to read about unlikeable characters or that it isn’t right to pay witness to the horrendously cruel way so-called “loved ones” can hurt us or that I want a nice rounded explanation of why people can be so nasty, but I need some context or frame within which to understand them. It’s explained how Neve is a financially unstable writer whose father was abusive, whose problematic mother didn’t support her and who experienced tumultuous relationships prior to marrying her cantankerous and misogynistic husband. However, this story was not properly fleshed out by the author and did not let me understand the experiences Neve has gone through. Instead she flits from one brutal encounter and argument to another.
Later on she considers the pointlessness of reflection and trying to understand the past:
“Time doesn't help. You forget, for years, even, but it's still there. A zone of feeling. A cold shade. I barely drink now, but when I do, sometimes I see so clearly how nothing's changed. Not one thing. About who I am and what I am. I don't have to be drunk. When I least expect it, my instincts are squalid, my reactions are squalid, vengeful. And for what? What am I so outraged by? Little mite with a basilisk stare. Grown woman. My parents were hopeless. And? Helpless, as we all are. Life is appalling. My father ate himself to death. Isn't that enough? A year before that, in a short email to my brother he mused,
'Should I tell you/shield you? The latest. Peri-anal abscesses! Pain unimaginable!'
Won't that do?”
My response to this (which I felt like shouting at the book) is: No! That won’t do. I get that Neve is conflicted and struggles with self-loathing, but I feel like I'm not given her full point of view or a meaningful understanding of her past. And without getting a sense of a character’s sense of being I feel alienated from her struggles rather than sympathetic to them.
Neve and Edwyn have circular arguments where he berates her for her actions and a single evening when she came home as a messy drunk. This sort of emotional abuse within a relationship feels very real. Years ago I saw the pair of documentaries ‘Domestic Violence’ and ‘Domestic Violence 2’ by Frederick Wiseman. In one of them there is a gruellingly long sequence where late at night a husband endlessly criticizes his wife while she pleads with him to simply let her sleep. It’s horrible, but the faithfully-recorded length of this repetitious encounter drives home the reality of this poisonous relationship in a way which is incredibly moving and heartbreaking. Conversely, the circular arguments between Neve and Edwyn don’t give the same effect because they aren’t given any context. Edwyn is simply brutal and Neve simply takes it. Edwyn speculates she might think of him as a stand-in for her horrible father. It even comes into question whether Edwyn even exists; he might be a psychological phantom Neve uses to beat herself up. But these possibilities aren’t given the proper amount of space in the text to be effective.
The one exception to the sketchily drawn characters in this novel is Neve’s mother who is incredibly difficult and troubled and has a lack of willpower, but feels like a more fully rounded character. I appreciated the scenes with her and felt like I got her as a person because she presented to Neve a version of her own past and her point of view. She’s not a reliable narrator in these speeches. Her recollections are, of course, filtered through her own prejudices, but I get that and it made me curious to reading about her as a flawed individual. However, I didn’t get this at all from Neve or Edwyn or Neve’s ex Michael. They spew vitriol without any meaningful reflection. Yet, their stories unfortunately make up the bulk of this short novel.
Even though this is such a short novel, if I weren’t reading it because it’s part of the Baileys Prize shortlist I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it. I don’t think I would have lost anything by not getting to the last page. I don’t think the ending provides any more insight or poignancy than the rest of the novel. Frankly, I’m a bit baffled as to why it’s on the shortlist and why other people have responded so positively to it. I’m going to keep reading other reviews to see what I’ve missed about it. For a different point of view, read a positive review at Naomi’s TheWritesofWomen or Eleanor’s thoughts on why she hoped it’d be on the shortlist at ElleThinks. Or you can watch why Anna most definitely didn’t like this book in our Baileys shortlist prediction video. It will be fascinating to hear Gwendoline Riley’s own thoughts about her novel at the Baileys Prize shortlist readings on Monday. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.