Book Review: First Love by Gwendoline Riley

What’s it about?

Neve is in her thirties, married to Edwyn, an older man. This book recounts the loves, relationships and choices that have lead her to this place, this man, this marriage.

My thoughts

I’m not entirely sure where to start with this book. It’s a tightly woven close-up of the dynamics of love, but also a more macro look at the relationships that define us all.

The novel opens with Neve unpacking boxes in the flat she shares with Edwyn. We are offered glimpses into their bond, through their cuddles, their pet names, their affection for each other. Yet this is tempered with the other side of their union, the other names Edwyn calls her (“fishwife shrew”), their negotiation of shared space. This feels like two sides of a coin; different, yet part of a whole.

We are then invited into Neve’s family. We meet her dizzy, newly single, newly pensioned mother. We are offered throwbacks to Neve’s abusive father, to life with him, which are later tossed back into the fray by Edwyn – “what I get from you is your reaction to your father.” This is where the micro-macro interplay comes into force. Despite the detailed clarity of Neve’s life up to this point, there is a distance in the prose which leads the reader to wonder how much of her father feeds into Neve’s later relationships.

This novel is like a rainstorm in a city; grey, grimy, yet with the hope for a clearer future. There’s a transparency to Riley’s writing that belies the remoteness of the character. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it.

Would I recommend it?

In short, yes.

But did I enjoy it? When reading the final chapters, I held my fiancé’s hand, such was the effect on my mood and feelings. It’s very well written, but it left me fundamentally unsure of myself.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley is published by Granta priced £8.99.

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