First Love

Jacket image for First Love by Gwendoline Riley. Text in block capitals on a cream background, the words First and Love separated by an unstruck matchstickThere’s something concentrated, claustrophobic, about Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, such that it comes as a relief that the book is only 167 pages long. The prospect of spending more time in the company of bullying, self-pitying Edwyn feels intolerable, the reader just as trapped as Riley’s protagonist, Neve. The liberal use of italics for emphasis in the dialogue should feel heavy-handed but Riley’s pitch is perfect, capturing the leaden sarcasm and sullen aggression of everyday speech. Her acerbic observation of modern British manners recalls Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, Transit in particular, but with immediacy and intensity in place of Cusk’s glassy distance.

Neve’s relationships with her parents seem to foreshadow those in Riley’s subsequent novel, My Phantoms, as though she realised while writing First Love that there was rich material there that couldn’t be explored thoroughly without losing the essential focus on the central relationship between Neve and Edwyn, unbalancing a very tight novel. Which is not to say that Riley repeats herself — the shift in focus develops the father beyond the thumbnail sketch in First Love, and if Neve’s mother is memorable, Hen in My Phantoms is indelible, one of the great comic monsters of recent years, needy, self-regarding, oblivious. What unites Riley’s characters is their uncertainty about what is normal, what one can reasonably expect of other people, or of life. It feels a very modern anxiety.

Thoughts, hopes, exhortations?