Tag Archives: Gwendoline Riley

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

One of the things that always excites me about any books prize longlist is the books that I know nothing or very little about. The latter was the case with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love which, bar the copy lovely Lamorna over at Granta – who publish the book – sent me, I knew next to nothing about other than she thought it was amazing and the author was originally from the Wirral where I live now. (For some reason I assumed it was a debut novel about love, neither of these things are correct.) Yet sometimes I find the idea of starting a book I know hardly anything about as exciting, if not sometimes more so, than starting something I have been meaning to read. So in I went, knowing not what to expect…

Granta Books, hardback, 2017, fiction, 168 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I used to look at houses like this one from the train: behind the ivy-covered embankment, their London brick, sash windows. That was on the Euston approach. The back of this flat – that is, the bedroom, the bathroom and Edwyn’s study – looks out on the overground line, just past West Brompton.

The opening of First Love is quite an ingenious initial insight into the world of Neve whose life story we are thrown into. She is not only looking out on others wondering what they might see if they looked at her, she is also looking at the patterns of her life and how they are reflected from a girl looking in to being a woman looking out. Sorry if we got a little deep here but we get deep into Neve’s life just as quickly as we soon discover that she is married to Edwyn, of the study, an older man who seems to be suffering from some form of sickness. We also discover that the married life she has might not be the one which she was expecting and the cracks behind the veneer which within four pages are shrugged off.

Lately it’s the round of coughing in the hallway that lets me know he’s home. I go out and meet him, we have a cuddle, and then I look at the Standard while he gets changed. We don’t talk much in the evenings, but we’re very affectionate. When we cuddle on the landing, and later in the kitchen, I make little noises – at the back of my throat, as does he. When we cuddle in bed at night, he says, ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names, too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one; in my dungarees I’m ‘you little Herbert!’ and when I first wake up and breathe on him I’m his ‘little compost heap’ or ‘little cabbage’. Edwyn kisses me repeatingly, and with great emphasis, in the morning.
There have been other names of course.
‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I’ve no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had… green acid shoved up it.’

It soon transpires that Edwyn is not just physically sick but possibly mentally too he doesn’t just have outbursts of verbal anger but also physical abuse, though it is the verbal to which he is most prone and is actually the more controlling. We quickly switch back to Neve’s younger years back in Liverpool where her father used to abuse her mother, something Edwyn knows and belittles – I know, he’s utterly vile. Yet where her mother also used to send her to once they had split up to ‘keep the peace’ even after her father assaulted her brother, where she gets to hear her father and his friends berate and demean women. Leading the reader to wonder if this is why Neve is so passive in her relationship with Edwyn, is it because it is what she was expecting and what she was taught about the value of her own worth?

If this sounds somewhat all over the place and slightly confusing it is because that is how Riley wants you to feel. These are snippets of memory, sometimes coming in a jumble or linking up in strange ways in a woman’s life. They continue in the second part of the novel, of which there are three, when we are taken to two periods between those years after her parents splitting up and before Edwyn. The first, living with a friend in Manchester where an ex-lover gets back in touch when he is back in the area; the second, which could be earlier or later, in Scotland when her mother comes to visit after the separation of her relationship after the one with Neve’s father. Still with me?

‘Oh, he just went mad. Absolutely mad. But – I was prepared, so… You know I have been making this list, well, you don’t know, but I have, of things he does that I don’t like, or, you know, not very nice things, and it ran into three pages in the end! So I did show him that.’
‘You showed him?’
‘Yes. And oh, he went mad. He just said – Out. Get out. So I went straight upstairs then and started looking at flats on Rightmove. But he has lifted that sentence now, so… I can go in my own time. But yes, I am going now.’
‘That’s good.’
‘Yes. Well. I think it’s just… I’d had enough really.’
‘Where will you go?’
‘Well, I don’t know. All my activities are in Liverpool, but then he says that’s over now. None of his friends would want to stay my friend, apparently, so I am to be ostracized, you see, he says, my name’s going to be mud, apparently, so… Persona non grata.’
‘That’s nice.’

 It is through this section that we begin to see how the situations of Neve’s past, using exes and abused yet demanding mothers, have led to her being in this relationship with Edwyn. Yet I spotted a few things that made me start to consider Neve in a slightly different light. Firstly, there was the abandonment of a friend who had let her live with her pretty much rent free for a long as she liked, without thanks or even any notice. Without a care in fact, quite coldly. This then made me reread some of the sections with her mother where I started to reread it less as the mother as the monstrous matriarch and more as the abandoned daughter who really just wanted, well needed as she comes across so needy at times, her daughters love, approval and opinion. I mean look at the end of the response to her mother being persona non grata, ‘That’s nice.’ Hmmm. Then I did the same with the relationship with her ex. And then her relationship with Edwyn.

What I did find was that it made the book all the more unsettling because I started to question what if Neve isn’t the victim in this situation, what if she isn’t as passive or as innocent as she first looks? We are told Edwyn is sick, but what if she is making him sick, after all this is Neve’s version of events but how reliable a narrator is she? It throws the whole book in the air and flips it on itself. I could of course just be me misreading two moments completely.  I would love to know what anyone else who has read this thinks. Anyway…

At first I have to admit I was really quite bemused by First Love and didn’t know what I should make of it. I then had some cracking chats with my lovely booktube pals Lauren and Lauren about it who both also read it in very different ways. Since those chats and having some time away from it, the more and more interesting and clever and twisty I think it might be. How amazing that a book can be read in such different ways due to some subtler moments here or there. Gwendoline Riley shows with First Love that with subtlety and brevity you can still create the most complex and claustrophobic of characters and atmospheres. I shall have to read more of her work, and possibly this novel a few more times to find out which story is true.

Have you read First Love and what did you think of it? Which version of the two potential ways I have read it did you read it? Am I mad thinking it can be read in such different way? Have you read any of Gwendoline Riley’s other novels and if so where should I head to next? If you haven’t read it I do urge you to get a copy as I want more people to talk about it with. You can get a copy here.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Granta Books, Gwendoline Riley, Review

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017

It has not long struck midnight, and whilst many of you (myself included) may be asleep, the book world still keeps whizzing with the latest news that the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been announced and it came with a surprise or four. It had been said that the longlist was going to be twelve books, yet the wealth of women’s writing was so strong in the last twelve months (as I mentioned when I tried to guess the longlist last week) that we have a list of sixteen titles. And here they are…

  • Stay With Me – Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (Canongate, Nigerian, 1st Novel)
  • The Power – Naomi Alderman (Viking, British, 4th Novel)
  • Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood (Hogarth, Canadian, 16th Novel)
  • Little Deaths – Emma Flint (Picador, British, 1st Novel)
  • The Mare – Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail, American, 3rd Novel)
  • The Dark Circle – Linda Grant (Virago, British, 6th Novel)
  • The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber, Irish, 2nd Novel)
  • Midwinter – Fiona Melrose (Corsair, South African, 1st Novel)
  • The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan (4th Estate, American, 2nd Novel)
  • The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus, South African, 2nd Novel)
  • The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill (riverrun, Canadian, 3rd Novel)
  • The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail, British, 2nd Novel)
  • Barkskins – Annie Proulx (4th Estate, American, 8th Novel)
  • First Love – Gwendoline Riley (Granta, British, 6th Novel)
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (Granta, Canadian, 3rd Novel)
  • The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, British, 14th Novel)

It’s all too easy to go on about the books we should think should be on there (though I am nosey enough to want to hear your thoughts on that down below) because despite all the books I mentioned when I cheated terribly at guessing there is so much I love about this list, though I am still letting all the titles settle in my brain. Naturally though I cheered at the inclusion of The Essex Serpent and The Gustav Sonata (review coming on Friday), yet I am so excited about what gems I am going to find in the next few weeks and months, as yes I am going to read the longlist. I have only read three of the books – which I have popped in italics above, however I have thirteen of the titles and three more coming in the post so it would be rude not to, especially as I still have almost two more weeks of post surgery recovery.

I think this year is a really diverse selection in all sorts of ways. Women from their first book to their sixteenth, from all around the world and importantly writing on a wide variety of subjects and themes; even two about horses, anyway… I am really excited about delving in, what about you?

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Going Under The Radar; A Mini #ReadersRevolution

How do we find the books that for varying unknown reasons go under the radar? Initially this seems like a really simple question to answer, and as it was one that a listener of The Readers asked recently I thought it would be pretty simple to come up with some suggestions. Well more fool me, oh silly Simon of Savidge. As I then discovered when I had to think of some handy hints it is a lot harder than I thought. After all if we all knew where all the great undiscovered gems were they wouldn’t be so, well, undiscovered would they?

My first, almost automatic, response to a question like that is ‘ooh, you must go and check out Fiction Uncovered’. Those of you who are frequent visitors to this blog will know that I am a huge fan of this initiative, and indeed have just been its very first guest editor, which selects eight books every year by British authors that for some unknown reason seem to have missed out on the accolades that they deserve. This has put some marvellous books in my reading path and ones that I would have been unlikely to discover otherwise. Yet Fiction Uncovered only choose eight books a year and is not an initiative that runs in every country, even if it should. Some countries do initiatives and prizes for unpublished manuscripts but what about all the books, and there must be loads and loads and loads, all over the world that go without the notice they should and are frankly bloody marvellous? I know ‘the big’ prizes throw up a few, but again what percentage is that of amazing lesser known works worldwide? Ooh it makes your head hurt a bit.

Second option is if you come across books which you have read and loved and seem to have gone under the radar tell EVERYONE about them. That most powerful thing, word of mouth. After all isn’t it great to tell people about a new to them author that you love and are desperate for them to go and try? I have probably mentioned some certain titles/authors to you on here (or in person) over and over and over again. But it is because I think they are marvellous and think you should read them because you may well think they are marvellous and do the same. In fact I have done a list of ten British books you really should uncover for Fiction Uncovered, do have a gander as each one is an absolute corker. Oh and as well as telling everyone about amazing lesser known books, don’t forget to ask them back be it online, in book groups or at the library or your bookshop.

Weirdly enough The Beard came up with the third response, as is my want I wander around the house pondering, musing and muttering, when he said ‘why don’t you just ask the publishers?’ This was a very good question, the answer being I am not sure. I guess you would have to put it rather carefully, you don’t want to say ‘Erm excuse me lovely publishers but as well as sending all your Catton’s, Amis’ (well…), Tartt’s and your Mantel’s, could you do me a favour and send some of you lesser known authors that you think are genius but might not actually publish again if their book sales don’t pick up?’ You may offend a few publishers, their houses and their authors and never be spoken to, let alone emailed, again. Yet publishers are a good place to go a hunting, especially the more independent or left field, so I would recommend a good mooch on their websites.

It was the idea of mooching, which I do so love to do, that gave me the third option which really should have been the first and most obvious… Have a mooch in your local library/secondhand bookshop/independent bookshop/high street bookshop. This shows the power of having somewhere, library or bookshop, that you can just go and peruse the shelves at your will (well between 9am and 5pm at least) eyeing the spines and picking up books at whim you may or may not fancy. Once I had stumbled upon this most obvious answer I got very excited on the episode before last of the Readers (yes I have been meaning to blog about this for two weeks) and came up with a cunning plan that I think we should all do… Yes, ALL of us, yes you included.

We should all go to our local library and take out a selection (be it two or three, or be it ten or twelve) of random books we have never heard of before – and there will probably be a fair few unless you are the biggest book buff ever – which after having mooched and perused the shelves for quite some time we then take home and try out and, if you can or want to, then share. You can tweet them, blog them, email them, whatever. Just share them. Thomas has already been and done it, such a swat, and now I have recently been and done it to coming home with all of these treats…

Under The Radar Library Loot

  • Fup – Jim Dodge
  • Cold Water – Gwendoline Riley
  • Disquiet – Julia Leigh
  • A Modern Family – Socrates Adams
  • Nothing to Fear – Matthew D’Ancona
  • Today – David Miller
  • Everything I Found on the Beach – Cynan Jones
  • Drowning Rose – Marika Cobbold
  • Catch – Simon Robson
  • The White Woman on the Green Bicycle – Monique Roffey
  • Do No Harm – Carol Topolski
  • The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai – Ruiyan Xu

Some of them I am sure some of you will have heard of however they are all new to me and books which I just thought ‘well why not give that a whirl’. So here I am sharing them with you. It’s like a mini reader’s revolution, though being booky it’s very calm and lovely – and rather quiet if you are at the library.

So now what I would really like you to do, again as Thomas has done so marvellously, is go off and pop to your local library (because they need you) or bookshop and pick out some titles that are new to you which you would quite like to give a whirl (they can be classic or modern, I stupidly forgot to go to the classic section, fiction or non – basically books which you wouldn’t have picked up otherwise) and share them on your blog linking back to here so we can all come and have a nosey and spread the word. If you are thinking ‘well I don’t have a blog’ why not post them on Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #ReadersRevolution or email them to me and I will do a compilation post or two as and when they arrive, what do you think? Reviewing them could be done the same way… So go on, do please, please give this a whirl (gosh I hate it when I beg, ha) as I think we need to give voices to those lesser known books.

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