Almost as fascinating as reading this scalpel-sharp examination of a destructive marriage is listening to the author Gwendoline Riley speak about it. Whilst interviewers from Marielle Frostrup on Open Book or Susie at Dulwich Books sought to judge either character one way or another, she had a different opinion each time, so it was with curiosity and interest that I picked up First Love.
Neve, a writer in her thirties, is engaged in a turbulent and toxic marriage to the older Edwyn. From one moment, their relationship veers from the loving (‘we have a little cuddle…we don’t talk much in the evenings but we’re very affectionate’) to sheer vitriolic hostility, in which her advances are rejected and ridiculed, and vicious accusations are thrown around: ‘You’re like a baby, really, aren’t you? You won’t be happy until we’re both just crawling around this place in our own shit.’
As Neve traces the journey that led her to her relationship with Edwyn, we meet her strange and aggressive father who ate himself to death, and her prudish but oddly needy mother. We meet a musician, who Neve has never been able to forget, and a picture forms of a woman torn between wanting love and companionship, but also desperately craving independence, which itself chafes against Edwyn’s need to be needed and appreciated.
Riley captures with razor-like accuracy the intimate cruelties that only someone close to you can know can land, and the unique nature of cruelties within different relationships. But she writes just as perfectly about the pleasant and comforting moments spent with someone you know almost as well as you know yourself; the funny and often totally incomprehensible in-jokes that develop, the nicknames that you’d rather die than accidentally reveal (‘Mr Pusskins’ ‘my little smelly puss’).
First Novel is a masterpiece, sharply observed and strangely compelling – like watching a beautifully written car crash, you can’t look away.