“Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it? To get to the truth, to the heart of the trouble.”
First Love is an often cryptic snapshot into the everyday reality of an abusive relationship. The novel, which has been shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, is Gwendoline Riley’s fifth book. Protagonist Neve is a thirty-something writer married to an older man, the vile and unrelenting Edwyn.
First Love takes an interesting approach. It is dark, uncomfortable, and bleak, yet the harsh actuality of Neve’s life is normalised. Neve expresses unhappiness, but does not spend her time contemplating miserably upon her situation. Riley offers no grandiose moral judgements or easy solutions. First Love drives home the reality that there are no happy endings or neatly tied-up strings in a toxic relationship, nor in life in general.
“It is dark, uncomfortable, and bleak, yet the harsh actuality of Neve’s life is normalised”
Riley looks at how our background, our experience, and our family lives affect us. She uses small and inconsequential conversations to paint a picture of Neve’s childhood. Riley does not spoonfeed the reader to explain why Neve’s past led her to where she is. The author prompts us to consider Neve’s psychological make-up, diving into her parents’ characters, in an attempt to understand how she got here. It also plays on the idea that ‘choice’ is something of an illusion. We often fall down certain paths, propelled by past experiences, without consciously deciding on our destination.
While Riley paints characters such as Edwyn and Neve’s mother vividly, I struggled to get a strong sense of Neve’s character. Her perception and description of her own behaviour seem off-kilter with the life she leads. Neve comes across as sharp, assertive, and sensible. She has no problem confronting her mother, father, and Edwyn when they frustrate her with their irrational logic, which is all the time. She is under few delusions that most words out of Edwyn’s mouth are cruel and manipulative, and she responds calmly and reasonably to him, without exception. This begs the question, is Neve an unreliable narrator?
Neve’s behaviour, in contrast to her words, is passive. Riley chooses not to explain why it is that she fell in love with Edwyn, or why she never considers leaving him. This is clearly not an oversight on Riley’s part, and her exclusions are carefully crafted. It is possible that the author is trying to illustrate something about the inescapability of toxic situations. Sometimes leaving is not an option, or at least doesn’t feel like one.
“Reading Edwyn’s unreasonable and cyclical logic already rouses feelings of frustration and helplessness”
The strongest part of First Love is the dialogue, particularly between Neve and Edwyn. Their interactions give real insight into the mind of a self-loathing, abusive bully. Reading Edwyn’s unreasonable and cyclical logic already rouses feelings of frustration and helplessness. Riley has a keen awareness of how misogyny infiltrates people’s thoughts, and the words of Edwyn and Neve’s ‘tyrant child’ father are a vehicle for this.
Unfortunately, a lack of plot development means there is little to carry this sharp dialogue. Perhaps First Love will resonate more deeply with people who have experienced a relationship like Neve’s. As somebody who hasn’t, I am left thoughtful but unsatisfied. First Love is intelligently written and provocative, but fails to come together coherently.