Book Review 11 – First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First and foremost I’d like to thank Jodie, my one and only voter in last week’s referendum. But one vote is all I needed. Well actually, no votes would have done but at least one vote is a positive reinforcement. The results are in and it’s official: audio books do count towards the 52 week challenge. So I’m still on track with my reading. Hooray!

This week I finished off ‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley. I was already a few chapters in from last week’s false start and the book is slim as it is so I had it all wrapped up within a few days. ‘First Love’ was shortlisted for the Bailey’s prize for women in 2017 and lost out to ‘The Power’ which was the first book I took up on this 52 book challenge. So it was with great excitement that I returned to the Bailey’s prize to see what else it had to offer.

‘First Love’ is about Neve, her husband Edwyn, and their rocky relationship. The back of the book states, ‘For now [Neve and Edwyn] are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars.’ I wholeheartedly disagree with this summary. The simmering cauldron of toxicity that was Neve and Edwyn’s marriage did not strike me as a place of peace. Edwyn was despicable. The way he spoke to Neve pretty much constituted emotional abuse and yet she apparently loved him. I have no idea why. Sure there were moments of tenderness, but these were so scant that they might as well have not been there at all. How could Neve allow these moments to make up for the horrific names she was called? How could anyone love such viciousness?! As you can see Edwyn engendered some pretty strong feelings in me. I’m just glad he’s fictional! But believe it or not, I couldn’t decide who to detest more, him or Neve’s father who was a selfish, manipulative piece of work. Luckily he wasn’t in a lot of the book so Edwyn had to bear the brunt of my ire.

In amongst the blood-bath of character assassinations that I’m carrying out here, I would like to make the salient point about the true to life form of Riley’s characters. This is my eleventh book of the challenge and, whilst I have come up against some stunning writing, this is the book more than any other where the characters have practically jumped off the page and into my living room. I almost offered them a cup of tea (or reached for a frying pan to assault them with).

I’m struggling to pin-point what it is about Riley’s writing that has made these characters so real that I wanted to repeatedly punch them in the noggin. I think it was her focus on the almost imperceptible interactions between people that often go unobserved. Or those feelings that are too cringe-worthy to articulate that she painfully spells out. I think it was this that helped to really define her characters in my mind. They became towering inferno’s of people for the few short days in which I read the book.

Whilst I was evidently antagonised by Edwyn, I was well aware of the power that Neve held as the narrator of the book and I did wonder how much of her own behaviour she chose to withhold. We tend not to see our own faults I suppose. Edwyn may have been heavy handed with berating her and putting her down and she did allude to her shortcomings on occasion, her neediness and inability to acknowledge his feelings, but I had a strong suspicion that she was hiding things. That the less palatable aspects of her personality were glossed over. She basically made it sound as though simply breathing was enough to set Edwyn off into one of his tantrums. And the one concession that I will make for Edwyn is that it cannot have been all him. Some of the friction must have come from Neve. She can’t have been the picture of placidity that she was painting. But that is my only concession. Edwyn was vile and if Neve were ever to stick her head out of the book and read my review I would just give her one piece of advice: leave him!

Now, playing agony aunt to fictional characters is all good and well, but I am reviewing a book here and I have to finish off by saying this is an absolute must read. To be transported so thoroughly into someone else’s life is ultimately the point of reading. I have been so wrapped up in this book and its characters that for whole chunks of time the real world has ceased to exist and I am just there on the sofa sat between Neve and Edwyn feeling the pernicious undercurrent of their relationship around me. Riley is simply an incomparable genius and I for one will be going on the hunt for other works by her.

Come back next Monday my lovelies. I shall be reviewing ‘Genuine Fraud’ by E. Lockhart. I bought it after reading a massive endorsement from a Twitter contact, so I’m optimistic about this one!

Update

It turns out I actually had three voters in the referendum – the other two were on my scantily used Facebook account. One voted ‘yes’ and the other ‘no’. So the outcome is still the same! Thanks to those who took part!

2 Replies to “Book Review 11 – First Love by Gwendoline Riley”

  1. Ok, now I’m torn. On the one hand I really want to read this but on the other I’m afraid it might hit a little too close to home. Maybe that’s why I should read it… !

    1. Tricky! Whether you do or don’t choose to dive in with a book that has a difficult subject matter is a very personal choice – and one I’ve alluded to in the past. Only you can decide – but do come back and let us know if you take the plunge and what you made of it!

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