Variations on a Theme: On Gwendoline Riley’s “First Love” and “My Phantoms”

By Oona HolahanOctober 11, 2022

Variations on a Theme: On Gwendoline Riley’s “First Love” and “My Phantoms”

First Love by Gwendoline Riley
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

TO DATE, there are six of her. Young, still “figuring it out,” she seems younger than her 20 (or 30 or 40) years. She is thin, vaguely liberal in her tastes (classic literature, art-house cinema, contemporary art), and vegan — gets her protein from nuts and seeds, though she’s certainly not militantly or embarrassingly political about all that. She’s well read and university-educated; disaffected; often solitary; a drinker; transplanted from somewhere more provincial, a city much dirtier than London, the place she now lives. You can hear her past in her voice, her words, not just intonation; it’s all Manchester or Liverpool, those Northern England places where members of her family remain. There’s her father, dying or dead, bullying or a dead bully; he is (or was) an attention-seeking imbecile, a self-styled rogue, mawkish too. And then there’s her once-divorced — soon to be twice — and unquietly desperate mother, a woman who speaks in energetic banalities and was maybe never for one minute happy. Sometimes there’s the odd sibling, the whole lot of them peripherally relegated though unhappy in their relegation. They are kept at a careful arm’s length by her, the protagonist of a Gwendoline Riley novel.

Neve and Bridget are the two newest Riley protagonists, joining the similarly styled ladies from Riley’s previous novels: Cold Water (2002), Sick Notes (2004), Joshua Spassky (2007), and Opposed Positions (2012). These two most recent books, First Love and My Phantoms, were released in England in 2017 and 2021, respectively. First Love made it across the pond in 2017 but was met with little fanfare. Now it appears again, alongside Riley’s latest effort, from New York Review Books, adorned with elegant covers of muted and serene paintings by the 1980s British artist Jean Cooke. Colorful yet grotty, the two paintings establish the world contained within. The books are slim, share dreary British hues, and look wonderful side-by-side. This is perhaps how many people will encounter them: the two novels have the same release date, a rare strategy for an American publisher.

First Love follows Neve, a writer in her thirties. She is married to Edwyn, an older man, whose painful chronic illnesses have curdled whatever softness he might have shown in his youth. Edwyn picks petty fights with Neve, misinterpreting her words, twisting anything she says into an insult, and responding barbarously, sneeringly. He pries at the class distinctions that separate them: “I know you loathe anyone who didn’t grow up in filth, on benefits.” One night, when Neve is sick after drinking, he says to her, “Get back in the sewer, scum.” But not long after, he is a wounded animal again. He holds out a tender hand “trustingly” and Neve kisses his “poor poorly paws,” which ache intermittently due to fibromyalgia.

In bed in the mornings, they kiss, and Neve is Edwyn’s “little compost heap,” his “little cabbage.” Their babyish, private language provokes a different kind of wince than their dreadful and usually one-sided fights. A reader feels intrusive, as uncomfortable with what appears to be genuine happiness as with genuine vitriol. Riley draws out the perverse invasiveness of reading about a couple. She invites the reader into their relationship but doesn’t provide quite enough for us to understand what we are witnessing. What do these two see in each other? Why does Neve stay with this man? Maybe she doesn’t even know.

We are strangers to ourselves and to one another. The novel reminds us of this again and again. Neve and Edwyn’s conversations are riddled with misunderstandings, some of them willful. I found myself flipping back a few pages, trying to find where in each interaction things started to go wrong, trying to pinpoint a word or a phrase. Was Neve’s tone enough to provoke Edwyn? Did Edwyn’s sharp comment merit such defensiveness from Neve? It’s hard to tell. A reader always feels that she is missing something. And Neve is the one who is narrating, so that mucks it up too.

These are two people who constantly observe each other. There is love in observation, in the attention it requires, but there is always the hideous compulsion to narrativize, to rely on the shortcuts of stereotype, and to turn observation and categorization into conclusion. Neve is an alcoholic. She is self-annihilating. She will never pull herself out of the meanness of her working-class background. Edwyn is the familiar posh British archetype, a limping, fouled-up Hitchens sort. He is a spoiled man who conflates wife with servant. But are these archetypal roles imposed externally, or are they learned?

There’s delight and horror in the entomologist’s art: stick a thin pin into that dry bug body, fix it to the hard white board. “Edwyn has said since that he feels it’s me trying to annihilate him,” Neve reflects, “Strange business, isn’t it?”

Perhaps even more than in her romantic relationship, Neve is constantly observing when she is around her mother. After leaving her second husband, Neve’s mother is in a frenetic spiral. She moves into a cramped apartment and cuts off all her hair, but doggedly insists on maintaining her packed social schedule of club meetings — the “Vic Soc,” the Wine Circle, the Clan Grant Society — and cultural events. She is an extrovert desperately filling her time with people and places, but she never seems to have any real friends. Neve mostly refuses to indulge her mother, or she responds deflatingly, like an astute therapist, only colder. “But that’s an interesting insight, isn’t it? Why do you think that is?” Neve prods. “Why do you think you don’t have any friends you can meet up with?” These comments are sharp, but are they loving? It doesn’t seem so, and what is odd about these conversations is the difficulty of ascertaining their tone.

This is a feature of much of the dialogue in Riley’s work. People talk, seeming to see one another clearly, yet their assessments, their chides and other comments, are never received straight. Riley’s lucid prose whips the reader up into a swift reading pace. One cannot help but whisper aloud this painful-to-read dialogue, which captures the oddness of spoken language with all its inflections of dialect and grammatical oddities. There is an unpolished, transcript-like quality to Riley’s dialogue, so much so that it often reads with the out-of-place disjointedness of a Beckett play. No matter how well Neve is able to dissect her mother’s failings in her private internal monologue, in conversation, language arrives to the other in a garbled state, as if transported by the telephone game.

In My Phantoms, as in First Love, the mother-daughter relationship is also the site of many such disjointed conversations. The book treads much of the same territory as other Riley novels. The characters are familiar, but the book’s focus is tighter. The romantic tensions fall away — Bridget is happily married to a husband who appears once in the novel; he is a benign, largely faceless presence, so perfect for Bridget that his voice is nearly indistinguishable from hers — as do struggles with alcohol, father issues, money concerns, and anxiety about writing. These things are merely glimpsed, explored modestly, but unlike in Riley’s other work, this novel eventually zeroes in on the mother, Helen Grant. Helen, or “Hen,” is very much like Neve’s mother, only worse. Perhaps she appears so only because we see more of her.

The novel, unfolding mostly in conversations and Bridget’s reflections, focuses on Helen’s life, and how she got to be this way. The book begins with her childhood, as presented by Bridget. Here’s how it starts:

There was “nothing for him” in England.

“There were no ‘Homes for Heroes.’ Oh no. No ‘Homes for Heroes.’”

My grandmother said this indignantly. And if my mother was there, she used to shake her head and join in: “There was nothing, no. Nothing.”

Notice the repetition of words. This is a story about naming a problem and turning that name into a chant, repeating that chant until explanation becomes pure noise, meaningless once more.

Helen Grant is the daughter of a man who worked for Shell Oil in Venezuela. Her childhood is filled with “souvenirs of their time in ‘Ven,’” but after returning to England, Helen, darling golden child, feels her “purchase […] slip,” and she begins to make decision after decision that makes her unhappy but that she justifies with the same stock expressions. Normality, as Bridget notes, is her sovereign. Helen relentlessly insists that all of her choices were “just what people did.” Suddenly, we encounter her deep in a second terrible marriage, working in a detested job in IT, and stuck with two daughters who are trying to get as far from her as possible. Hen desperately seeks the kind of “badinage” (a word Neve’s mum loves, too) that she hears between couples on TV, but she isn’t much of a conversationalist herself. She seeks out culture and art, she’s a member of Clan Grant by marriage, and she too is big into the “Vic Soc,” but ask her to give an opinion and she acts attacked and harassed. Attendance should be proof enough of her original, discerning taste, and anyway, most art is a bit “crap” or downright “boring.” When Bridget was a child, Hen put on novelty slippers and danced to Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” in the kitchen, taking care to do so only when Bridget and her sister were nearby to watch. As Hen always makes sure she has an audience, her behavior is more a pathetic pantomime than a natural quirk.

What is so awful about Helen’s performance is that she really is genuinely funny sometimes. She jokes about taking her children to the “funny farm,” pretends to pick up the telephone to call the “Romanian orphanage” on her children, keeps texting about how she can’t follow the Ferrante novel Bridget gave her for Christmas: “I don’t know who anyone is! [sad face emoji]”; “Is Lenu Lina or is Lena Lulu? Argh!”; “Still waiting for ‘Ferrante Fever.’” See, she isn’t always so odious. But Hen and her daughter are always out of sync. They are never allowed to be funny at the same time.

There are many ways to read the script, but every good performer knows that whatever you do, it should be natural, the material should seem genuinely felt. Even when she’s at her most charming, though, Helen is incapable of holding a real conversation, of asking a question, of doing anything but performing and demanding a rapt, uncritical audience. She is a neglectful, cruel mother, her kindness feigned, her solipsism total.

Yet there is cruelty in Bridget too. She ignores her mother’s requests for help after a knee surgery, refuses to cancel work events in order to see her mother in the hospital, and delays a visit so that she can get her nails done. Bridget also rather perversely insists that her mother get therapy (Neve does this too). It is painful to watch the daughter tearing her mother apart. And it is painful to see Hen flailing. This is an unnatural mother-daughter bond strung along purely because to cut off all contact and admit defeat would be “just not what people do.” For all of Bridget’s attempts to dissect her mother’s failings, she’s too close to be the cool and collected observer she tries to be. When Bridget might respond kindly, she finds herself unable to do so: things are too far gone, and it is impossible to get out or begin again.

In First Love, during a short lull in a dinnertime argument with Edwyn, Neve tries to step out of her situation. He’s there in front of her, but her internal monologue rolls on:

He stared at me for a couple of seconds, then picked up his cutlery, hunched over his plate. Outside, behind him, the wind carried the rain, the lamp posts quivered. I found myself thinking of certain people I knew — people not that far away — how surprised they’d be (wouldn’t they?) to see me sitting there with that bright, bland expression on my face, trying to fence with this nonsense. Or had I been very naïve? Was this what life was like, really, and everyone knew it but me?

Neve’s befuddlement, her ambivalence about the “rightness” of her own reality, is something shared by every character in every Riley novel. That there is no script for conventional life is a real pity. That “figuring it all out” is perpetual, despite people’s apparent incorrigibility, that understanding another person is an incomplete, unfinished process — this is all deeply unsettling. This is not a fiction of wish fulfillment, nor does a Riley paragraph ever crest into a knowing, pat conclusion. It’s just the trenches — the ongoing repeatedness of it all!

When asked if she would change anything she has written, Riley responded that she wouldn’t mind suppressing all her books except the latest. (She also cheekily added that they’re sort of “self-suppressing.” Happily, she’s wrong on that count.) Her remark is pretty run-of-the-mill authorial anxiety, but because her books are so similar, it’s hard not to hear this as a comment on her own dalliance with a recursive, obsessive “figuring it out. Is this what life is like? asks one book. Okay, but what about maybe like this? asks the next.

There are plenty of authors who repeat themselves, and many who write the same books over and over again. Vivian Gornick’s scathing review of the latest Geoff Dyer book skewers one kind of authorial repetition. Paul Auster famously loves his stock characters. And then there are the writers who write the same places over and over: Roth’s Newark, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Joyce’s Dublin. But no one is as blatant as Riley. More than just theme, character, or place, the very language of her books feels repeated, a cobbled-together assortment of well-rehearsed preoccupations. Yet this is part of their charm. With each book, Riley reenters a similar despair and tries once again to capture its shape and feeling. This isn’t to say that each new book is an improvement over its predecessors — I prefer the looser First Love over the more focused My Phantoms — but with every effort, you can feel Riley honing her craft. She is perfecting a particular kind of despair.

That NYRB is releasing these two books alongside each other is to the reader’s benefit. Reading them together is a strange experience. They begin to blend. The obsessive attempts at skewering the source of unhappiness are now externalized; each book is an attempt, each a variation on a theme. The fundamental iterability of Riley’s work is made manifest in these two books strikingly similar in world, theme, and cover art. They look lovely side by side.


Oona Holahan was born in Venice, Los Angeles, and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

LARB Contributor

Oona Holahan was born in Venice, Los Angeles, and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.


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