Review: First Love by Gwendoline Riley

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

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To look at a copy of First Love is to be immediately confronted with a microcosm of the physical and thematic differences. The lefthand side is a stark black and white, suggesting an easily categorised morality, a traditional kind of good and evil or right and wrong. The right is a murky grey, much more in tune with the complicated reality that Gwendoline Riley writes of, slightly offset and jarring. It’s a slim volume, giving the impression of a slight story, a quick read that can be absorbed and put down swiftly. It is anything but.

Because the book is so visceral, it makes it a difficult thing to write about without walking you through each emotion as it is felt. There’s warmth in there, affection, rage, hopelessness... To read First Love is to experience it. 

Neva is in her 30s, she’s a writer, and she’s married to an older man. Edwyn has been steadily getting sicker during their relationship, his body betraying the sharpness of his mind. As Riley details their marriage, she presents it in all its ugliness; Edwyn is angry at his illness and takes it out on his wife. Neva feels dissatisfied with her lot and takes it out on Edwyn in oblique ways. Both are trapped.

Neve spends her time remembering past relationships as well as living through the torment of her current one. Her time with Edwyn is caustic as well as affectionate. They share both a love and a loathing of each other that presents itself as a vicious cycle of both self- and inflicted abuse. When Neve reflects on those past relationships, it’s through a lens of quiet assessment. There’s a reason these relationships don’t work and why Neve has moved on from them, functioning almost like a road map on her way to her marriage with Edwyn.

Riley’s stark prose can feel almost clinical at times, but still captures an emotional sharpness that can cut keenly. A sense of loss - for Neve’s youth, Edwyn’s health, or even just affection without consequence - runs as an undercurrent as Riley meanders through her memory.

First Love is not an easy read. At times there’s a melancholic sadness that pervades the text. At others, it’s simply harrowing, inducing the kind of gnawing anger at a character that can only be resolved by shouting at the book. But it does all of this in the best possible way; it’s beautiful in its ugliness, clear in its grey morality, and profound in its simplicity.