First Love, written by critically acclaimed English writer Gwendoline Riley (My Phantoms), is a razor-sharp portrait of everyday life in a volatile marriage. Thirtysomething Neve is struggling to cope with her sometimes tender but often cruel and unpredictable older husband, Edwyn. As she reflects on how best to avoid "managing" him, she thinks back to the relationships that have defined her life up to this point: her intimidating father; a commitment-phobic chronic fling; her often narcissistic mother.
Neve's pointed first-person narration is, at times, darkly funny and abrasively caustic. Often defined by a sparse, hard-edged prose style, her voice is startlingly unsentimental as it reassembles the pieces of her previous relationships. This fragmented structure is as fittingly jagged-edged as the novel's characters, who cannot seem to avoid hurting each other with their own vulnerabilities and desires. Some of these figures are primarily comedic--Neve's marriage-hungry mother and her self-indulgent ex--but others, such as her father and her husband, occupy a more threatening position that bring the tensions of relational power dynamics to the fore. Rather than producing a kind of callousness on Neve's part, however, these frequent acts of emotional devastation instead result in a raw nerve that pulses under the surface of her marriage, a sensitivity that keeps readers flinching at every new blow.
By turns discomforting and irreverently comic, Riley's novel is always insightful as it grapples with Neve's central dilemma: "People we've loved, or tried to: how to characterize the forms they assume?" --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor