“Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it? To get to the truth, to the heart of the trouble. You wake and your dreams disband, in a mid-brain void. At the sink, in the street, other shadows crowd in: dim thugs (they are everywhere) who’d like you never to work anything out.”
“First Love” is an introspective novel featuring characters almost totally lacking in introspection. It follows the foibles, fights, and follies of Neve, a writer who has recently married Edwyn, a rather disturbed older man whose hate for humanity generously includes his new bride. Neve seems adrift, her story wending its haphazard way through a life of condemning her mother’s relationships while, predictably, emulating them.
“I’m very glad my mother left my father, of course, but as I got older it did get harder to valorize that flight. This cover-seeking – desperate, adrenalized – had constituted her whole life as far as I could see. In avoidance of any reflection, thought. In which case her leaving him was a result of the same impulse that had had her hook up with him in the first place. Not to think, not to connect: marry an insane bully. Simper at him. Not to be killed: get away from him.”
She criticizes her mother’s lack of insight while unwittingly following the same path. Just like her mother, the men Neve seeks out seem vicious and cruel, her connections with others tenuous.
“It must be a dreadful cross: this hot desire to join in with people who don’t want you. This need to burrow in. But, then – perhaps I’m not one to talk.”
Neve flashes the reader a secret smile, giving us hope that she may have insight after all.
“Finding out what you already know. Repeatingly. That’s not sane, is it? And while he might have said that this was how he was, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making, whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling, cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me.”
The characters of “First Love” are vile, hateful, even toxic. The venom they share (and sometimes to seek) is reminiscent of the destructive couple trapped in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. And like Albee’s stomach-turning tale, Riley’s “First Love” is extremely well written, carved with a finely honed blade that tolerates no fat and engenders no pity. It features a volatile marriage which occupies the “now” in a story filled with traumatic memories and scar tissue. A nominee for the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, “First Love” is merciless and lean and, thank goodness, can be read in one uncomfortable sitting.