At the start of Jeanette Winterson’s novel ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’, the character Jeanette says of her parents, ‘My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.’ They had come to what Gwendoline Riley might call ‘an accommodation’: a settling for each has to offer, a wrestling with what each has to impose and in between, perhaps, love?
Since ‘Cold Water’, her wonderful first novel, Gwendoline Riley has espoused the novel as a reflection of real life, producing works which examine in acute detail the sadness and absurdity of life without what she might see as the flim-flam distractions provided by flights of the imagination. Gwendoline Riley owes no debt to the magic realists. However, what she has done is taken the raw bones of her life and made her fictional world, with each of her five works mapping out a particular stage in her life : ‘Cold Water’ and ‘Sick Notes’ detailing the young writer’s life, scratching out a living in bars, ‘Joshua Spasky’ and ‘Opposed Positions’ moving further afield into the world of the published author,‘First Love’ about a writer’s marriage to an older man. (Riley is married to the poet Alan Jenkins). ‘Sing Your Life’, as Morrissey once advised.
However, like Winterson’s novel (of which she wrote ‘Is it autobiographical? No not at all and yes of course’) we will probably never really know the proportions of fact and fiction contained within them and, of course, it matters not a jot when this process produces novels as great as this: a short, sharp exposition of what ‘love’ might mean. But reader beware: while ‘First Love’ is a calm and subtle novel it is also unflinching in displaying the raw brutality at the heart of a relationship.
Neve, a writer, finds herself in living in London with her husband, Edwyn, her elder by a good number of years. But their relationship is difficult: Edwyn is ill with a condition which causes terrible anxiety and results in toxic bouts of verbal violence. Neve tries to make sense of her feelings for Edwyn, and the how and why she arrived at this point in her life (‘Was I really going to blame someone for being frightened?), dwelling on her earlier years as she drifted through Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, leaving ‘derelictions’ (of love? of duty?) in her wake. Michael, the singer: ‘What followed was strange. An attachment? A conviction? I make no case for it either way. Or only this case: that it was based on nothing and fed on nothing. For the next three years we saw each other for a few days a year. That was all. Wet English winters. Black rooms above pubs.’ And to her father, ‘A greedy child. A tyrant child. And 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 toys he exercised capricious rule , and as with any imperator, his rage was hellish were his schemed not reverenced.’ And her mother, who listed his attacks: ‘Slapped, strangled, thumbs twisted. Hit about the head while breast feeding…’ and currently trying to find a new life on her own.
Like her previous novels, ‘First Love’ is not a novel for plot or intrigue, but this lack is more than made up in the precision of Riley’s writing, a forensic clarity which brings a freshness to the humdrum, a spring, a step, a spark to the everyday:
‘Oldham Street was an outfall back then. Fuliginous nooks yielding uncertain streams of piss, on that first block of money shops, bookies, bus-stops drunks. My shift started at seven, but I’d often walk up there early, passing the smokers shivering outside the Methodist Hall, and their shadow selves, the ruined gurners who hugged the walls by the pubs, cowering in, sneering at, this new element of non-pub.’
Riley also knows and understands the importance of space in writing in that there are no easy answers and no obvious questions about the nature of love. As Neve says about her early days with Edwyn, she always suspected their marriage was perhaps a ‘coming to an accommodation, two people who’d always expected, planned, to live their lives alone?’ For Neve, it is having a partner who allows the space – financial or otherwise – to focus on her work. For Edwyn, it is ‘putting his affairs in order. Everyone names in his previous will being dead, as he put it, and he wanted to take care of me. ‘Do something useful’ he said’ . But this accommodation involves wrestling with their perceptions of what love might mean, from saccharine – ‘Lovely Mrs Pusskins! Prr. Prr.’ – to sickness: Edwyn with his heart troubles, fibromayalgia and his feeling that Neve is trying to ‘annihilate‘ him; Neve constantly pacifying Edwyn’s terrible moods as if ‘throwing some sausages at a guard dog’, defending herself against his blistering passive-aggressive diatribes which leave the reader gasping for air, ears buzzing as the pressure grows and grows and grows. These passages are breathtaking in their control and power, showing perfectly the simmering tensions, always present, which can erupt at the most innocuous moment:
‘Where has this come from Edwyn? Why are you being like this?
‘Being like what, honey?’
Not able to speak I lifted my shoulders.
‘Being like what?’ he said, He was warmly interested now, leaning towards me.
‘Just an, um…With an ugly tone?’
‘A what, sorry?’
‘An ugly tone. Telling me to go away. And I didn’t say anything wrong. I didn’t.’
‘Mt tone is ugly? Hm. OK. Well. My tone is ugly, honey. Were you in the dark about that? Are you saying I deceived you about that? Are you saying I – what? – misled you in some way? I can assure you that I didn’t. My tone is ugly. That’s how I am. Because how I am, now, is I’m an arsehole and a fucking cunt. OK? I didn’t used to be an arsehole and a fucking cunt but it’s how I’ve ended up, OK?
He stood up, took his plate, then put it down again, flexed his fingers.
‘And isn’t it too fucking sad?’ he said
At 167 pages, ‘First Love’ is a short novel, but those pages say so much about love that it is almost impossible to disentangle and translate everything Riley has to say. We catch fleeting glances, whispers of possibilities, only to find them drift away as lives move on and outlooks change. ‘First Love’ is a brave book: at times brutal, at times touching, at times coolly clinical, all the time chewing over the notion of love, what it means and whether we sometimes mistake the need for love for love itself. An early contender for book of the year.