Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms takes a cold analytical approach to the narrator’s toxic relationships with her parents. Children can’t escape their parents’ mind games until they learn the rules of engagement, and then they should refuse to play. Through shared features, First Love could be considered a tangential novel to My Phantoms. Both novels are narrated by young women, and the mothers in both novels share characteristics and geographic locations. The mothers in these two novels could be the same person, seen through a less critical eye in First Love, and it’s a toss up whether the father in My Phantoms is more repugnant than the father in First Love. The major difference between the novels is the emotional territory. The narrator in My Phantoms focuses primarily on her mother. In First Love, the narrator has two major relationships–both toxic, but the narrator’s relationship with her mother seems like party-time compared to her toxic intimate relationships.
The novel begins with the narrator, Neve, a writer/teacher who has moved to London, to live with Edwyn. When the novel opens, they have been living together for 18 months. There’s the sense that perhaps things were good earlier in the relationship (“I’d watch for Edwyn in the evenings.”) But the relationship has declined and consists of a barrage of emotional abuse. Edwyn is now a sick man; he’s middle-aged, is post-heart surgery, and is in constant pain. Neve remains in the home living under a barrage of insults. Neve and Edwyn even marry at one point on the advice of his lawyer. The scenes between Edwyn and Neve are dreadful–not just the insults, but the slow torture of one person slicing into another’s every word. There are times when Neve begins to chat, as one does to one’s partner, but Edwyn isn’t having it:
I was casting around for something to say, and then as soon as I’d said it–“Lonely”–I knew what was coming. Finding out what you already know. Repeatedly. That’s not sane, is it? And while he might have said that this was how he was, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me. Why? I wonder how much he even noticed, hopped up as he was. No, I didn’t believe he did notice. That was the lesson, I think. That none of it was personal.
Over time and some very painful, spiteful scenes, Neve learns how to cope. Numbed to the point of compliance, she knows when dealing with Edwyn, not to try and clarify. Instead she learns how to placate:
So it was both strange, and dreadful–I knew it–to feel that I was managing him, in a way. Beyond bringing him out of himself, or my genuine interest; that I was maintaining this keen and appreciative front as a way to keep him calm, or to distract him. Like –I don’t know–throwing some sausages at a guard dog.
Post Edwyn, Neve’s life is better for his absence, but still her life seems flat, stark and joyless. In the past is Neve’s ‘great’ love, a man named Michael. The affair did not end well, and for some reason, Neve reconnects with Michael when he drifts back into her life. Michael is a strange, self-focused man, and his relationship with Neve has fuzzy edges. Neve’s friendships seem more successful. Loved her friend Bridie whose texts leave Neve with a feeling of missing out, but when they finally meet, it seems that Bridie is prone to exaggeration and her life is a mess.
Neve’s mother is very like the mother in My Phantoms–a woman who throws herself into a frantic round of social activities while not enjoying it in the least. Her mother’s relationships with men are problematic–she invites herself to visit a younger man in America, and so the trip is destined to disappoint in a life full of disappointment and exclusion. The behaviour of Neve’s father, a man who ate himself to death, probably goes a long way to explaining why Neve stays with Edwyn. She has no idea what is normal, and there are no doubt financial reasons behind Neve’s continuing to live under Edwyn’s abuse. Sharp, dark and bitter, First Love makes my best-of-year list.