First Love by Gwendoline Riley review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, which was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize earlier this year. Our narrator is Neve, a thirty five year old living in London with her husband Edwyn, who is much older than her and has various ailments. Told mainly through flashbacks, Neve looks back and reflects on her life, particularly her relationships with her abusive father and eccentric mother. She also remembers her romantic relationships as well and discusses her marriage which is fraught with arguments. However is Neve a reliable narrator?

I thought Riley’s prose was very beautiful. Her imagery was incredibly evocative, and whether the story was set in London or Manchester or Glasgow, you felt like you were there with Neve. Her observations about people as well I thought were witty and made me smile which, giving how grim a lot of this book is, was quite a relief. They rang true to me and I liked having them dotted throughout.

However, I did have a problem with First Love. I felt it needed to be longer. My edition clocks in at 167 pages and I felt it could’ve done with another 100. One of the aspects that was affected by the length was the characterisation. Now, I think Neve was wonderfully drawn. It was interesting to watch how these previous relationships were affecting how she acted in her marriage, whether consciously or not. I also liked how initially she seemed quite passive, yet she had this small spark inside of her that allowed her to stand up for herself at times. She wasn’t just a doormat. I also enjoyed reading about her mother and their relationship. Her mother often appeared both funny and tragic – her attempts to integrate herself with a particular crowd was amusing but also strangely depressing. The conversations where Neve is trying in vain to get her mother to see sense are my favourite passages from the book.

However, I thought Edwyn was quite one-note. Neve tells us next to nothing about him, we don’t hear how they met or what their relationship was like before she moved in with him. Subsequently, I couldn’t see why she loved him and wanted to be with him. I found him to be very manipulative and antagonistic – whatever Neve said seemed to set him off onto a rant. At one point he threatens suicide and suggests Neve would be delighted at that, which I found really disgusting and childish. There was nothing appealing about him. Perhaps if we were given more insight into Edwyn I would have felt different, or I could see why Neve did care for him. Instead his character fell flat for me. I didn’t care about his illnesses or their marriage – I found his constant arguing boring.

There was also the interesting idea of expectations in relationships. What happens if your expectations differ from your partners? How do you reach a compromise, or do you compromise at all? I felt these were touched upon but never fully explored. Again I think the book was too short to properly get a full discussion on them, which is a pity because I found these questions fascinating. Riley has crammed a lot into the novel, but I think some of the characters and ideas in First Love have suffered because of the length.

Overall I did like First Love and I would happily read more of Riley’s work. As I said, I think she has beautiful prose and I enjoyed reading about Neve. Yet I felt the book had problems, between underdeveloped characters and half-baked ideas. I just wanted more from it. If you’re a fan of Riley, or are really interested in this type of story then I think you’ll enjoy it. But sadly I won’t be in a rush to pick this one up again soon.

First Love is published by Granta Books and you can find more information here.

The Power by Naomi Alderman review

Hey everyone! As the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced today (7th June) I decided to share my review of one of the nominees. Naomi Alderman’s The Power is set in the not-so-distant future when it is discovered that girls can produce electrical charges due to a muscle across their collarbones called a skein. Gradually this power is awakened in women and society as we know it is flipped on its head. The novel focuses on five central characters; Roxy, a young girl living in London, Allie, a teenage runaway with a chequered past, Mayor Margot Cleary and her daughter Jocelyn and Tunde, a wannabe journalist from Nigeria. These narratives collide at various times in the novel, as the characters come to terms with this new phenomenon, and start to use (and abuse) their power.

I found the ideas and themes presented in the novel really fascinating. Gender inequality is obviously an important theme in the narrative, as after the discovery of electricity women are now physically stronger than men and, as the novel progresses, you see men being slowly stripped of their rights. Even the relationship between the two news anchors, who pop up now and then, changes throughout – reflecting the changed attitudes towards men. I like how Alderman highlights inequality ranging from the obvious oppression to the more subtle words or actions which are undermining. Gender inequality is such a highly charged (no pun intended) theme and I think Alderman discusses it brilliantly. Another idea she tackles really well, which is linked to inequality, is the prevalence of rape culture. Throughout The Power there are constant references to men ‘secretly liking’ when they receive an electric charge. That wording really hit home, I was reminded of lyrics in songs like ‘Blurred Lines’ which has a similar idea and the subsequent controversy surrounding it. By switching the genders and using this power as a metaphor for sex, Alderman emphasises rape culture in our own society and the contrast between the novel and reality is particularly striking and very effective. There are also scenes of rape in the novel which some readers could find distressing as they are quite graphic. These scenes aren’t gimmicky or there just to shock people as Alderman handles them with great sensitivity but they are disturbing.

If I had to criticise this novel I would say it is too Westernised. This seems like a tiny, weird thing to nitpick about a novel, but this power is said to be worldwide. Women from all corners of the globe have this electricity running through them. Yet, aside from a couple of Tunde’s chapters, the action is confined to the USA or Europe and four of those five characters come from these areas. I would have found it more interesting to see how the power affected women in different countries and cultures. There is only one chapter set in the Middle East and South America gets merely a passing mention. I don’t recall anything in relation to Asia. This is particularly frustrating when you consider how many times the former ruler of Saudi Arabia is mentioned. He is seen as one of, if not the main, antagonist throughout the majority of the book yet we never see the long term changes affecting his country. Instead, by placing the narrative in just two continents I feel you have narrowed down the scope of the story. This feels less like a global revolution and more like a blip in the Western world. I would have liked to have seen Alderman expand the story  to include more women of various backgrounds and cultures.

The Power is a fast paced, violent novel which will have you gripped. If you’re going somewhere lovely this summer (lucky you!) then this would make a great beach read. As I said the themes in this book are fascinating though I would of liked to have seen them reflected in different cultures. Alderman writes prose wonderfully and the characters are really well drawn.

The Power is published by Penguin. For more information: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/180872/the-power/

I also wrote a review for another Baileys nominee, Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle. You can find it here: https://randombookreviewsweb.wordpress.com/2017/05/02/first-book-review/