Gwendoline Riley is one of those authors whose work I feel I should have read before now but for some reason I’ve never got around to it. She’s quietly gathered a good deal of acclaim over the years since her first novel, Cold Water: First Love is her fifth. Given its title, you could be forgiven for thinking you might be in for a little light romance but Riley’s spare, sharp novella is having none of that. It’s about a woman in her mid-thirties married to an older man and how she’s come to be with him.
Neve is a writer who’s lived on scraps for years, getting by with jobs in bars and the occasional grant. Now married to Edwyn, she’s devoting her days to writing while he goes out to work. Edwyn is much older than Neve, often cranky and unpredictable – showering her with pet names and cuddles one minute, abusing and undermining her the next and frequently reminding her of the single drunken night he cleaned up after her. Theirs is a marriage born of practicality rather than passion although Neve craves love. She grew up with a bullying father who ate himself to death, and a mother who fills her life with busyness rather than thinking about her second broken marriage and why she has no friends. Reflecting on the series of missteps and stumbles punctuated by disastrous relationships which has been her life so far, she tries to find a way to live with Edwyn and his carping. What is she to do with this husband who blows hot and cold, who shies away from intimacy, physical or otherwise, and uses his health as a manipulative tool against her? Perhaps this is love? As we learn more about Neve’s life we begin to understand why she puts up with the insults hurled at her. Emotional intelligence is not one of her family’s strengths – it seems that Neve has no idea how to conduct a relationship, platonic or otherwise.
Riley tells her story through Neve’s slightly perplexed voice, leavening her novel’s bleakness with spikes of humour. Each sentence is brightly honed, spare and pin-point sharp: ‘There were all sorts of satisfactions to be had, for the restless bully about town’ thinks Neve of her father who torments her as a child, later trying to buy her time with concert tickets; ‘he had a picture of me that he needed to deface’ she thinks of her casually on-again/off-again boyfriend while her attempts to distract Edwyn are ‘throwing sausages at a guard dog’. Riley’s characters are funny, sad and discomfiting: her ditsy mother is a walking sartorial disaster whose speech is littered with italicised emphasis and catchphrases while Edwyn’s querulous defensiveness becomes increasingly nasty, punctured by his ridiculous ‘fall’ in a last-ditch attempt to gain sympathy. Throughout it all, Neve is constantly undermined not least by herself: there’s hardly a mention of her writing although we know from a casual aside she’s published at least one book. An unsettling, thought-provoking novel which ends on a note of frail hope.