Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, Book reviews, Literary fiction

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First Love by Gwendoline Riley is the shortest book on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction but don’t let that fool you – it packs a punch!

First Love

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

Neve is a writer in her mid-30s married to an older man, Edwyn. For now they are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she tells of other loves and other debts, from her bullying father and her self-involved mother to a musician who played her and a series of lonely flights from place to place.

Drawing the reader into the battleground of her relationship, Neve spins a story of helplessness and hostility, an ongoing conflict in which both husband and wife have played a part. But is this, nonetheless, also a story of love?

What’s good about it?

Riley’s strength – shown in her previous works, too – is the ability to focus on the minutiae of life. She zooms in on the smallest, most ordinary aspects of daily living and unpicks them in with poignant intricacy.

I read First Love in one sitting. At 176 pages that’s not such a feat but it is a testament to the pace of the narrative.

I can’t say that much happens in the novel – it’s a collection of recollections from Neve’s past and tableaus of her marriage with Edwyn – but it is an utterly absorbing read. The marriage is so awful that I couldn’t take my eyes off it. There’s a voyeuristic quality to Riley’s writing and you become an uncomfortable witness to intimate moments between a husband and wife.

For most of this novel, my mouth gaped in horror at the despicable behaviour of Edwyn and Neve’s willingness to put up with it. It’s shockingly brutal in its language and action – I had to stop myself from shouting at one point as I was in a coffee shop and I didn’t want to scare the other diners.

There are moments of humour in the book, too. Edwyn’s fascination with Neve’s Northern roots was particularly funny and Riley used it cleverly as a foil against the sharpness of their relationship.

What’s not so good about it?

The book doesn’t contain a single likeable character – but it’s not supposed to. I loathed Edwyn, was infruriated by Neve and disliked the supporting cast immensely.

Nothing much happens in the book and the ending is fairly blunt so I came away wondering what I had just read, and what was the purpose of the 176-page exploration of this relationship.

I can’t say that I enjoyed reading the book – it’s perfectly crafted and eloquently written but there was no pleasure derived from following the characters’ lives. I was angry, frustrated and annoyed for most of the book but couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards.

First Love is a powerful book that gives the reader voyeuristic access to a toxic relationship. Gwendoline Riley hasn’t provided an easy read but it’s one that will stay with you long after you leave this awful couple behind.

Feature image source: The Standard

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