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Gwendoline Riley: “Human beings are incorrigible. This is a source of humour and pain”

The Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novelist on relationships, misogyny and the importance of innovation in fiction.

This is the third in a series of interviews with the writers shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman.

Gwendoline Riley is an English writer born in London. Her latest and fifth novel, First Love, is shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s Prize, and was also shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It follows Neve, a writer in her mid-30s who has entered into a marriage of convenience with an older man, Edwyn. Their relationship often feels more like a battleground than a place of refuge. Reviewing it in the New Statesman, Anthony Cummins described it as “narrated with characteristic foreboding […] visceral, uncomfortable and almost impossible to turn away from.”

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize? 

O, reason not the need! That said – for three reasons: its focus on the novel; that it’s for UK and Irish writers, of any age; and its emphasis on innovation.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

I’m not trying to be facetious, but what about innovation? A reader – unless they’re a real genre fiend – might find a novel more worthwhile if its language isn’t off the peg, if it doesn’t feel obliged to hit the same old beats, if it’s not ersatz. But who knows, all or any of that might just make said reader hostile!

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

I mention him so often that I’m in danger of seeming limited, but I love the films Arnaud Desplechin makes. His storytelling is bold and committed. There’s myth and melodrama. People talk to the dead. As to what this meant for First Love… I hope that I was bold, too.

Many of the relationships examined in this book are bitter, toxic and outright abusive. What drew you to the title First Love?

The important thing to say is that the title is not an injunction or an instruction! And it’s not ironic.

First Love is a novel of very vivid voices – whether that’s Neve’s overbearing mother, her malicious, sulking husband Edwyn, or the fluctuating, detached intimacy of her almost-ex Michael. How do you approach voice in your work?

Well, I just tune in, really. It’s interesting what people get up to under the guise of having a conversation. I’ve heard that marriage counsellors tell couples not to say “always” or “never” when arraigning their spouses. “You always put me down!” “You never listen!” That’s inflammatory. You should say, “You sometimes put me down.” I’m not sure what that is. I remember a woman who used frequently to use both of those adverbs about herself and then add a question tag, too. Things like, “Well I never buy low-fat, do I?” or “I’ve always hated Jonathan Ross, haven’t I?”. So there was this need to constantly assert things about herself, a certain proud vehemence, then this anxious little question: a retreat. I notice things like that.

Misogyny looms large in this novel – Edwyn and Neve’s father, in particular, share a horror of women’s “filthy” bodies, resent female independence and dependence in equal measure, and belittle the women closest to them. What made you decide to explore this strain of behaviour?

Neve’s father is a gargoyle, rather than a type. I think my instinct with him was not exploration but a sort of appalled exhibition: look at this person, running amok! Neve’s mother might be the real poster child for misogyny’s wonderful work, though: desperately trying to ingratiate herself, and hated for her trouble. I think I’m interested in helplessness. I wrote Edwyn as helpless rather than misogynistic. And I think people often really can’t do other than what they do, they just lack the resources.

First Love captures the feeling of being trapped in claustrophobic, circular arguments, long past the point when good sense exited. What about that dynamic interested you?

Well, I think it’s rather common. And it’s also my idea of hell. Exactly as you say, it’s that lack of sense that’s so suffocating. Or – is that quite right? Sometimes it’s more like the air is getting thinner, sending you giddy. There wasn’t much sense or straightforwardness in the house where I grew up, and I think that’s one of the things that’s shaped me as a novelist.

Although First Love is just 167 pages, we get a strong sense of the repeating patterns of Neve’s life, as though we’ve been reading her story for much longer than we have. Did you intend, from the beginning, to keep First Love short? Is the book’s length the result of an intense editing process?

I’ve only ever written short books but no, that isn’t a decision, that’s just how they’ve ended up. And nor do I start with a long manuscript and whittle it down. I do it paragraph by paragraph. Like Philip Roth (in this one respect!) I lead the “Lonoff life” – “I turn sentences around.”

After years of being with Edwyn, Neve finds she is something of a stranger to herself. “This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling, cautious creature. (Except it was.)” Where do you think the line lies between how we behave and who we are?

I don’t know about that. I mean, she’s noticing these things, isn’t she? A relationship can be a reckoning, and this one is not fixed. As to the things we do and the person we are, that’s the question, isn’t it. Human beings are incorrigible. This is a source of humour and pain.  

Neve says that “Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination,” a deliberate act of shutting out distracting “shadows” and “dim thugs”. Does the same apply to writing a novel?

Not really. The horribly delicate determination, yes. You have to get it right. The dim thugs, no. I’m aware of them out in the world, but not in my head.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

Hallelujah Now by Terence Davies. A worthy winner for 1984. It’s a beautiful book: frightened and funny and deeply felt. And audacious.

“First Love” is published by Granta Books

Read the New Statesman's reviews of all six novels on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here

Will Self Q&A: The nostalgia of the “heritage novel” leaves me reaching for my gun 

Kevin Davey Q&A: “TS Eliot was far more than the sum of his prejudices”​ 

Listen to The Back Half podcast’s special episode on the Goldsmiths Prize nominees, on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia