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Gwendoline Riley, Opposed Positions – TLS

07/06/2012

At twenty-two Gwendoline Riley published her debut novel, Cold Water: it earned her a Betty Trask Award, the admiration of many critics, and a devoted following among the hip. Hers was a knowing voice, catching the glamour of unmoored youth while also mapping the disaffections her generation laid claim to. Born in 1979, she was one of the first to show us something of how Thatcher’s children viewed the world – and to suggest what positions they might adopt in the face of it.

A decade and three novels later not a lot has changed for the latest in Riley’s line of semi-autobiographical heroines. Aislinn is another Lancashire lass with an American get-out clause (winding up this time in Indianapolis), but now, reaching thirty, there’s an after-the-party feel, and a sense that this inveterate reader and hard-up writer is beginning to grapple with the problem of adult viability. Rather than learning how to settle down and act naturally, though, she begins to see that the literary persona she has assembled – so provocative to her parents – puts her beyond the pale. Her lofty ideas and drifting life offend the common-sense world; conceding to it, Aislinn thinks, would “illegitimatise” her.

So she lights out for America, to the bland un-confronting middle of it, where away from the maelstrom of family life (a menacing father, a thwarted mother) she can be “Peaceful again. Able to think”. Here, in nice transatlantic irony, Aislinn learns that the American she’s been hankering after for the last decade, never quite managing to pin him down, is now in Manchester. During their last encounter she was enraged by his gamesmanship (pathetically easy to “read”), by his failure to recognise her hard-won authority (“I’m a writer. I am. You’re insulting me”). Her gall and fury, her stubborn refusal to present the right face, sabotage her of course, and the boy walks away. In the next passage, she and a bar drunk swap stories about their mothers’ lost loves, who also fail to connect, then meet terrible ends. What Riley suggests in these scenes is the risk in being unaligned, of living unconventionally without fixing relationships and ready-made opinions.

That habitual world is the one Aislinn has forged herself in opposition to. It’s one in which male solidarity and power (her father is from a tribal band of brothers; a revered uncle once sat on Sheffield Trades Council) creates men who think themselves entitled to control women and children, to hit and humiliate them, and sons who grow up in their father’s image, perpetuating “the line”.

Gwendoline Riley

Among her gallery of friends, all living somehow by the book (the playwright, the poet, the bookshop assistant), the only lines are literary. They gloss life with everyone from Shakespeare to Philip Roth, under-scoring their sense of doubt. Without loyalty or ideology, their relationships take on the hue of power plays – everyone starts to look like a camp follower or a cast-off. Aislinn jettisons friends who become credulous or show bad form, yet admits to her own “heroic fixations” (northern escape artist Morrissey is a predictable choice).

For all their schooled antipathy, however, these aren’t committed bohemians: that would require belief in an alternative. Indeed, Riley is as sceptical about bohemia as the writers she’s been compared to (Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Smart, Marguerite Duras), sharing their awareness that, for women at least, demi-monde living – even a suburban affectation of it – can be just as lonely and diminishing: owning a poster of Baudelaire and quoting Beerbohn doesn’t stop her mother’s second husband from being, like the more traditional first one, a self-obsessed bully.

Other critics have called Riley an existentialist (“Camus in hotpants”, HP Tinker quipped) and there is a strong sense in Opposed Positions of the world-as-trap – for the mother who cannot escape a life of boredom and put-downs, consoling herself with the idea she is “indomitable”, and for the daughter who, refusing such delusion, can make a life only in draft, gestural and disconnected. Being so trapped produces a certain eeriness, which explains Riley’s toying with the gothic. Aislinn imagines herself a “savage ghost” and fears the bitterness of earlier generations will inhabit her; she cannot “outpace these shadows”. She is also suspicious of self-mythology, of attempts at drawing herself out and into narrative. Thinking of the boy who got away, she essays, “We were like children, maybe. (Were we?) Two children fallen in love. Or – I don’t know what to call it.”

It is a scrupulous performance, but in her vigilance (an ingrained sense she must not, as Aislinn’s father keeps taunting, pose or get above herself) Riley is in danger of self-entrapment. Perhaps she has gone as far as she can in this setting and needs to encounter a wider world. She may find there is more room for manoeuvre out there, and a greater range of positions that can be struck.

This review appeared as ‘Life in Draft’ in the TLS on 01.05.2012.

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