Have you ever been with a married couple, maybe a sibling and their spouse or a pair of friends and things become tense, a disagreement or argument breaks out. You feel like you should politely absent yourself, maybe go wash your hands or something, anything to get away and not be party to such unhappiness or animosity. It's a really uncomfortable situation and you just want to escape from it. Well, that is how it felt at times reading Gwendoline Riley's Baileys' shortlisted novel, First Love.
I'm not quite sure what I think of it. It's not exactly the sort of read you feel all warm and fuzzy about when you finish, though you certainly have gotten an interesting glimpse at something very flesh and blood and real. Of the initial list of books I was excited to discover it and it was a 'must buy' book which I had to pick up and read as soon as it came in the mail. It's a slender novel about a marriage primarily but also relationships that have helped mold Neve's life and world. The product of parents whose own marriage ended badly, and a father who wasn't in the least nurturing to his daughter. Her upbringing was a bit dire all around, and she hasn't had much success in other relationships either. So it all seems to follow.
Then along comes Edwyn, whom she marries. An older, perhaps more solid and even-tempered man. Certainly at first it seems as though they have a happy marriage. They seem loving and present for each other--all cuddling and cooing. They literally look out for each other. 'Seems' is right. Their relationship is not what it seems. Maybe it is Edwyn's poor health. And he does suffer in the story. Maybe feeling physically rotten makes you ill-tempered even with those you love--maybe even more so with those you love.
"There was a lot of shouting from him, back then. Long nights when his agitation, his flinches and side glances, would coalesce into a stronger force. Might you say we were coming to an accommodation, two people who's always expected, planned, to live their lives along? I'd never lived with anyone before, I had no idea what it might bring out in me. Certainly I remember feeling that it was his dream world, his symbol world, that we were dragged into during those first arguments, and it frightened me, being given--as I saw it--the part of a training dummy, outfitted in colors, slogans, that I could not see."
By novels' end it was cringeworthy how he seemed to take great pleasure in lambasting Neve as if she is actively reliving her bad relationship with her father through her marriage to Edwyn. At one point Edwyn accuses Neve:
"'Your father. You hated him, he was cruel to you, that's the only relationship you understand. A man being horrible to you and you being vicious back. So that's what you're recreating here. I am not your father. You don't have to go on being vicious'."
I couldn't quite bring myself to take that stance against Neve, but that is always the problem being on the outside of a relationship looking in. And in any story narrated in first person there is always the question about how reliable the storytelling is. One person's perspective is not quite the whole story. Is it true or only imagined? Riley lays it all out bare for the reader.
While I am still not quite sure how I feel about the story, the reader is always very aware of Riley taking a razor-sharp scalpel to the relationship and carefully slicing it open and looking at it almost as through a microscope. There is a real precision to Riley's writing and observations. Maybe I read too fast or looked away too frequently. If First Love takes the Baileys Prize I will have to give it a second and more thoughtful read. Maybe I will in any case.
I am nearing the end of Ayobami Adebayo's fantastic Stay With Me (more painful relationships), working away on Madeleine Thien's most impressive Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and just at the start of Linda Grant's post-WWII, kind of quirky on first impression, The Dark Circle which is about two siblings, Jewish twins who have TB and are sent to a sanatarium. I have Naomi Alderman's The Power at the ready (was sort of not all that excited to read this one, but I am keeping an open mind and ready to be wowed!) and after reading some very favorable reviews of C.E. Morgan's The Sport of Kings ready to pick it up sooner than later. Definitely an interesting and admirable Baileys longlist. (Can we go back to calling it the Orange Prize now that Baileys isn't going to be their sponsor any longer?).