LITFEST 2017: meet novelist Gwendoline Riley & her latest narrator Neve whose marriage comes with a little black humour
Gwendoline Riley comes to this year’s Marlborough Literature Festival with her most recent novel, First Love, shortlisted for the 2017 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
First Love is Riley’s fifth novel and is marked by the features of all of Riley’s work - the first-person female narrator, sparse writing, and a lack of typical story progression.
However, the lack of conventional plotlines is what distinguishes Riley as one of the best British writers. The introspective narration in First Love oscillates between bleakness and black humour, often without ever missing a beat.
The characterisation is sharp, with even the briefest of characters feeling fully fleshed out, in their drifting in and out of the narrator’s life. Just like in her debut novel, Cold Water, characters appear, and disappear, without warning – they are just present in the realistic worlds that Riley creates.
Cold Water is set in Manchester, where Riley attended university, and First Love also features Manchester, although when we first meet the protagonist Neve, she is living in London.
Riley is adept at evoking place – when it rains in Manchester ‘Everything looked dirty. Everything dripped’. In Liverpool: ‘The sky’s cold threat. Dishrag clouds, leaking light’. Her narrators drift from place to place, but there is a sentimentality, an importance, about all of these places.
First Love is about the marriage of Neve and her much older husband Edwyn, interspersed with Neve’s memories of earlier relationships, and her family.
Neve’s father is a deeply unpleasant man, who enjoys humiliating people, including his daughter and her mother, who he abuses. This historic abuse becomes a weapon for Edwyn. As the novel progresses, Neve and Edwyn’s arguments become more and more devastating.
Edwyn’s misogyny is elucidated through his verbal abuse of Neve and women on the television. He rants ‘when did women become so resentful?’ and tells Neve to ‘get back in the sewer, scum’. This is uncomfortable, but necessary, reading.
While Riley’s work is definitely bleak, there is also joy in the bitter sweetness of life, and the quest for identity. Her writing is powerful, filled with poetic descriptions of the most mundane of things, and the hypnotising rhythm of conversations.
Riley challenges readers to consider their own future through the introspective questioning of Neve: ‘...can the future be a white expanse? Can you run in, heart pounding?’
Nicola Presley is a lecturer in English at Bath Spa University. With Judy Carver (William Golding's daughter) she will be presenting 'William Golding's Legacy' at the White Horse Bookshop on Saturday, September 30 at 3pm.
Gwendoline Riley will be at the White Horse Bookshop on Saturday, September 30 at 1.30pm.
You can book tickets online using the LitFest link on marlborough.news' main page - or by phone 01249 701628 - or in person at the White Horse Bookshop (cash & cheques only)
Brewin Dolphin are the lead sponsor for Marlborough LitFest 2017.