Gig Review: Gwendoline Riley at the Marlborough Literature Festival

For reasons, now sorted, I was unable to attend events over the summer. Last weekend I put this behind me and discovered the delights of the Marlborough Literature Festival. Their programme was impressive making it difficult to choose the talks I would attend. At £10 each my ticket purchase was necessarily limited.

The festival runs over four days from various venues central to the pretty, if busy, town. Arriving on market day Saturday, having struggled to find an available space to leave my car, I visited the Town Hall to collect my tickets and enjoy a rejuvenating cup of tea at the Festival Cafe. This was a delight. Run by friendly volunteers and stocked with delicious looking cakes I happily handed over my £1 for a cuppa served in a book themed mug taken at tables abutting a tempting pop-up bookshop.


Suitably refreshed and with my tickets in hand I crossed the road to the White Horse Bookshop, a lovely independent with art displays on the walls of their events room. I was here to listen to Gwendoline Riley, author of First Love – click on that title to read my review of the book. The discussion was chaired by Caroline Sanderson, an editor at The Bookseller magazine.


Following introductions, Gwendoline read a passage from First Love, her fifth novel, shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Gordon Burn Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize. It is always interesting listening to an author give voice to their creations.

Gwendoline explained that the whole book is her protagonist, Neve, asking herself ‘how did I get here?’ Neve is in a challenging marriage yet is unwilling to let go. Gwendoline told us that their relationship developed as it was written – sometimes gentle then aggressive with unexpected changes of mood. The story is about the difficulties of living with another person.

A range of relationships are explored including with parents and a former boyfriend as well as Edwin, Neve’s husband. Gwendoline wanted these to be vivid and acccurate, not necessarily real. She asked what realism is anyway?

There are flashpoints and heightened scenes within the story. Her plot is the emotional development of the characters, portrayed in rich language within an episodic structure. She pointed out that similar events can have alternate impacts at different times in a life.

Gwendoline writes a great many words to get her story down then pares it back to what are short novels by contemporary standards. The first few pages take the longest to perfect, often years – she will not be rushed. The novels are her voice and she writes to her own agenda. When it is suggested she could change direction she points out that others are not doing what she does so why not do it herself?

Although using the carcass of her life the stories are not autobiographical – she feels uncomfortable when reviewers assume this. She writes from what she sees and hears but there is no tethering of people in life to her books. She writes with an almost painful honesty, not thinking about how readers will react to her words.

Gwendoline enjoys writing dialogue and is constantly eavesdropping. The audience agreed that interactions with Neve’s mother are funny and relatable. We enjoyed listening to a reading of one such mother/ daughter meeting from the book.

Asked about Neve’s dad, Gwendoline described him as nasty. He finds women gross and unclean, assuming a lazy authority in his pronouncements. He has a ‘take’ attitude to life, going out of his way to belittle others. Growing up with this will have affected Neve. Parents are a warning to a child of what it is possible to become. Edwin is different in being clever and articulate, yet he also belittles Neve.

Gwendoline was asked if place is important in her writing. She agreed it is but not the detail, more the sense of where the story is set. Continuity matters, that what happened three months ago fits whenever mentioned.

Asked about influences Gwendoline named Philip Roth, Elizabeth Harrower, Richard Yates. She talked of tense dialogue, the steamrollering of one charcter by another. She tries to write her dialogue with the assumption that no one will hear a word of what the other is saying. This contempt is obvious in Edwin when he explains to Neve how she is feeling, uninterested when she tries to tell him he is wrong.

Asked about learning creative writing Gwendoline believes much of the craft is instinct. Certain skills can be taught but the heart of what is needed cannot – this is difficult to encapsulate and articulate.

To conclude the discussion Gwendoline was asked what comes next. She has signed a two book deal but does not expect to meet the deadline her publisher has given. Her next book centres around a group of friends in London who have set up a women’s press. She is currently trapped within those difficult first few pages.

I found this talk worthwhile and interesting. Gwendoline came across as authentic, true to herself, unadulterated by the demands of performance – much like her excellent prose. If you haven’t read First Love, I recommend it.


First Love is published by Granta Books.

I will be writing about the other events I attended at the Marlborough Literature Festival over the next few days.


Book Review: First Love


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.