First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Sometimes the most frightening books aren’t found on the ‘thriller’ shelf. Such is the case with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love.

Neve, the narrator, tells the story of her relationships – with her mother and father; with Michael, the man she was involved with in her youth; and with her husband, Edwyn. Each relationship is fraught, each abusive in a different way. Moving back and forth in time, Neve recalls particular moments in each relationship, and the story builds to a dark and unnerving end.

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.

Although the bullies loom large in the story, Neve emerges as a woman who is intelligent but beset by loneliness, anxiety and financial stress. She recognises her relationships are toxic, but she lacks the capacity to walk away. And this is what makes First Love so real, and so frightening.

I thought of my mother, on the move. The energy for each flight, as for all of her lashing out, surely generated by the cowering cringe she lived. Was I like that? Would I be? I’d hardly been prone to impulsive moves. Dashes. Surges. The impetus seemed different, but perhaps it amounted to a similar insufficiency.

Riley’s characters are carefully created, vignettes showing them for who they truly are. Neve’s father had an explosive temper, and was physically abusive.

…for fifteen years, every Saturday, my brother and I were laid on to service him. To listen to him. To be frightened by him, should he feel like it. As a child with his toys, he exercised capricious rule, and as with any little imperator, his rage was hellish were his schemes not reverenced. One wrong word unlatched a sort of chaos.

Neve’s relationship with Edwyn begins with emotional abuse – nasty and cruel words – and then escalates. Gaslighting and belittling are Edwyn’s specialties.

When we were rowing, especially, he’d often hunch himself up, round his shoulders, lower his head. Pacing, then pausing, as if in a spotlight, he’d soliloquize, restating his credo, which was – is – It’s freedom that counts. He’d go on to wonder, haltingly, amazedly, at how he’s boxed himself in (ending up with me in his life he meant)…

As the story unfolds, parallels between Neve and her mother emerge. The implication, of course, is that Neve – educated, intelligent, with opportunities – should not find herself in the same situation as her mother, who is needy, reliant on men, and emotionally stunted.

I’m very glad my mother left my father, of course, but as I got older it did get harder to valorize that flight. This cover-seeking – desperate, adrenalized – had constituted her whole life as far as I could see. In avoidance of any reflection, thought. In which case her leaving him was a result of the same impulse that had her hook up with him in the first place.

In sum, Riley’s writing is concise, however, a handful of descriptions are lush and arresting –

Fuliginous nooks yielded uncertain streams of piss, on that first block of money shops, bookies, bus-stop drunks.

Outside the sunset abetted one last queer revival of light, so the outlook was torched; wet bust stop, wet shutters, all deep-dyed.

I was thoroughly engrossed in this novel. At the broadest level, the story illustrates the cycle of abusive relationships – how we model our adult lives on what we witnessed as children. Yet, it’s never straightforward. Riley’s characters are complex and the real strength of the novel is in Neve’s ambiguity – how much of her situation can be attributed to circumstances? How much is caused by her own insecurities and shortcomings? Riley doesn’t provide clear answers, instead leaving room for readers to make their own interpretation of Neve (based on their own experiences…? Interesting!).

4/5 Compelling, menacing, tense.

I had a can of vodka raspberry open, still wet from the fridge in Spar, and I pulled on that and shivered; walked around the dark flat.

Better than a can…

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