first love

Shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize, this slim novel is the story of Neve, a writer in her mid-thirties who is married to an older man, Edwyn. It is not a happy marriage. I wasn’t drawn to this and, had I not wanted to finally get round to finish reading the Baileys shortlist, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. I went in with an open mind but had a feeling that it was going to be very beautiful and that not very much would happen. I was sort of right.

I read the blurb and expected this to be a short and claustrophobic tale of a marriage gone wrong. Really this is a rather disjointed tale of Neve’s life up to the current moment. I picked this up to take on a three hour coach trip, thinking that with only 167 pages it might get me through most of the journey. Instead, I found myself frequently putting it down, then getting confused when I next picked it up as to when or where Neve was. Riley flits around Neve’s life so quickly that I often had to reread passages just to remind myself if we were in Manchester, London, Glasgow…

I enjoyed most the fraught relationship between Neve and her mother. Often comic, I found this far more interesting than Neve with Edwyn which felt rather one-note – he says something vile; she tries not to provoke him further. In some ways Neve was a younger reflection of her mother. Both of them flitted around, moving from place to place. In some ways I felt that Neve was only with Edwyn because she feared becoming like her mother, ditching relationships and having to start afresh each time. There were also some interesting scenes between Neve and her father, a bully who was reminiscent of her husband, which I wanted to be explored more.

When Neve and Edwyn do have a proper conversation (as opposed to the sections where he’s basically having a childish trantrum), these are full of tension and bile. Edwyn harps on about a time years ago when Neve drank too much and was sick, in every room of their flat if he’s to be believed, and Neve doesn’t, though she can’t remember. As much as he picks fights with her it is only when he tells her that he won’t forgive her, that he never forgives, that it feels as though Neve’s breaking point has been reached. I found their relationship a curious one. He is older than her, though by how much I was never quite sure. At times it seems that he is taking the father role – they don’t have sex, or not very often. There is no desire and only a few moments of affection which seemed to be habitual rather than truly emotional.  He constantly refers to her using him to keep a roof over her head.

It is Neve’s dependency on others that I found so frustrating. She is a person who seems to fall into situations rather than having any control. She is always living a few quid from destitution. The relationship with Edwyn balances on her need for financial support while he, ageing and suffering from heart disease, relies on her for companionship, someone to care for him rather than act as a lover. I wondered what brought them together in the first place.

This is the sort of book that you will enjoy if you like short story collections – this reads a little like one, a series of vignettes taken from Neve’s life. As a novel, it was a little too flighty. I often lost track of time and location and, reading the reviews of others, this is a common experience rather than as a result of me reading in several sittings. Perhaps my expectations were too far removed from what the author was trying to achieve, but for me I found this an unsatisfactory read.

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