First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, introduces the reader to Neve, a writer in her thirties married to the older Edwyn who is preoccupied with his health following a myocardial infarction suffered before they met. Written in the first person the narrative explores Neve’s life and varied relationships with razor sharp insight. This is a story of the inherent need humans have to interact with others, and the hurt this creates.
“People we’ve loved, or tried to: how to characterize the forms they assume?”
As soon as she was able Neve distanced herself from her parents who divorced when she was a child. She found them both demanding and needy, forever trying to find in her something she was not. Through her alcohol fuelled twenties she sought love and acceptance from friends and sexual partners, yet spent much of her time alone. Occasionally she glimpsed the way she was seen by others but could only ever be herself however much she attempted to act out their visions of her.
“You are the girl that never came true.”
Close relationships burned themselves out as time passed yet were often difficult to relinquish. In moments of weakness Neve would attempt to get back in touch, despising herself when she realised what she had done and how insecure she appeared. She longed to be strong, to be satisfied when alone, yet still sought something indefinable in others.
“It is strange what we expect from people, isn’t it? Deep inside ourselves.”
After years spent living in an acquaintance’s spare room or in tiny rented spaces she was offered a grant that took her to France. Here she had time to reflect before returning to her life which continued much as before.
“being abroad, at least, being out of it somehow, I found it was possible to feel less implicated. Less accounted for.”
Neve’s mother appears to be the antithesis of her daughter with her constant socialising and desperation for support. From time to time she seeks solace in her daughter. Their rare visits, although accepted, leave Neve eager to reinstate distance.
Apparently born of love, Neve’s marriage is not always a happy one. Edwyn is controlling and unforgiving, introspective and quick to anger. He resents that he is not always the centre of Neve’s life yet often rebuffs the form of affection she tries to offer. He bullies her until she capitulates, demanding that she agree with his interpretation of her behaviour.
“sitting there with that bright, bland expression on my face, trying to fence with this nonsense. Or had I been that naive? Was this what life was like, really, and everyone knew it but me?”
The dialogues throughout are painful in their honesty bringing to the fore the thoughts many try to suppress in their attempts to convince themselves that relationships are balanced and healthy. Humans may be social animals but we each exist within the shadows and complexities of feelings that can only be fully known to ourselves.
This is beautiful writing, raw yet sublime. Recommended to any who wish to better understand the human condition.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Granta.