First Love - Baileys Prize under the spotlight

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The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women in English from throughout the world.

In this series of articles we will look at each of the six shortlisted titles in detail, but you can also see an overview of the full shortlist.

First Love

Neve is a writer in her mid-30s married to an older man, Edwyn. For now they are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she tells of other loves and other debts, from her bullying father and her self-involved mother to a musician who played her and a series of lonely flights from place to place.

Drawing the reader into the battleground of her relationship, Neve spins a story of helplessness and hostility, an intermittent conflict in which both husband and wife have played a part. But is this, nonetheless, also a story of love?

About the author

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Gwendoline Riley was born in 1979, and grew up in the Wirral. She is the author of Cold Water, Sick Notes, Joshua Spassky and Opposed Positions. Her writing has won a Betty Trask Award and a Somerset Maugham Award, and has been shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. She lives in London.

Get involved

Have you read First Love? Do you want to know what other readers thought? You can leave a review, read a review or add the book to your group’s reading list.

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What our readers thought

12 of our brilliant reading groups have been shadowing the Prize this year, alongside three dedicated Library Ambassadors. Here are some of their experiences:

Vic Park Walkers

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“We all agreed this book draws you into its world very quickly, even though in many ways not much happens. The protagonist is trying to build her life following a dysfunctional and abusive childhood, although we are never told what trauma she suffered. She lacks any constancy in her life, those she interacts with only add to the sense of dislocation and Riley offers the reader little hope of redemptive action.

It is a bravely written book and gives voice to an important and silent aspect of society. We definitely had lots to discuss, and lots of questions that weren’t necessarily answered: Why is it called First Love? Does it refer to her mother? Or is she still waiting to find it? If you were in a similarly vulnerable position, how would it feel to read this book? Particularly as the blurb doesn’t fully explain the context. Would you recognise her vulnerability if you didn’t know her situation? Would you recognise it in real life?

The book is full of dialogue, and jumps in time and focus, forcing the reader to share her confusion and erratic life. It also means that we could miss the escalating tension, as there are no big dramatic events, instead a variety of clues build up to paint a picture. As in real life, and the recent political focus on ‘gas-lighting’, and even in The Archers, danger creeps up in life, it doesn’t always announce itself – and so can be hard to deal with. This book stays with you long after you finish but is well worth reading:

‘Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it? To get to the truth, to the heart of the matter.’"

Warwickshire Super Readers

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“We considered the book cold, in no way appealing, with unpleasant characters and abusive relationships running through it all (not just Edwyn and Neve).

We all found it an uncomfortable read, and were not sure of the point of it. Having said that, we had a long discussion about psychological abuse, with some members of the group sharing personal experiences. So because of this, we think it is probably an excellent book group book.

We felt that the book jumps around too much, so it is difficult to work out a time line, and it was therefore confusing. It would have been interesting to know more of the back story to Neve and Edwyn’s relationship. Some of us found it reminiscent to The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, without the thriller aspects.

We thought the writing style good and often poetic, but this doesn’t offset the misery or the message that life is impossibly difficult, and there is no room for empathy or generosity. It is a story of a very sad and suffocating relationship, with no hope or beauty.

There are plenty of questions – why is everyone so horrible to each other? Why do Neve and Edwyn stay together? And do we really care??

The only slight optimism is in the end, when we see Neve watching Edwyn walk away, and wonder if this indicates a separation in the end (hopefully).

Collectively, we are disappointed in a relentless, miserable book, with very little to redeem it."

Library Ambassador Lara

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“This is the shortest of all the books selected in the Baileys Prize 2017 shortlist but this does not make it any less powerful.

Gwendoline Riley writes in a sober and sad style. There is a resignation about life that exudes from the main character who narrates in first person.

Neve, is stuck. She drifts through her life with a husband who at times could be considered abusive and whilst she does have thoughts about changing her circumstances she is plagued by a James Joycean sense of paralysis.

What makes this novel stand out though, is it’s beautiful poetic prose. There are times when it could almost be read as an epic poem or a powerful piece of spoken word. Riley holds nothing back, exposing the very inner being of Neve, how she became the woman she is and how she is powerless to stop what is happening to her. It is an extremely uncomfortable read and one that ends in a stomach-twisting way. An intense and oppressive read.

Is this a commentary on the Western version of common modern love? No – this is a trail of consciousness from a woman who believes that she does not deserve love."

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