Book review: Opposed Positions by Gwendoline Riley

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THE references to literary greats may be flattering but Gwendoline Riley’s distinctive style puts her beyond compare, says Stuart Kelly

Opposed Positions

Gwendoline Riley

Jonathan Cape, £14.99

THERE is something both irresistible and frustrating about jacket endorsements. On the back of Opposed Positions, the new novel by the Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask prizewinner Gwendoline Riley, various critics cast around for various comparisons: she is a “contemporary Carson McCullers”, akin to F Scott Fitzgerald, and “Woolf-ish”. Other reviews have suggested she resembles Camus, Marguerite Duras, A L Kennedy and Jean Rhys. I would humbly submit that Gwendoline Riley writes like herself. The comparisons may be flattering and may even be apposite, but they occlude what is an assured, distinctive and singular style.

The broad outline of Opposed Positions will be familiar to readers who already know Sick Notes, Joshua Spassky and Cold Water. Aislinn Kelly is a young novelist, beset by financial woes, in love with a man she rarely sees, to-ing and fro-ing between vodka and soda water with lime cordial, and saddled with one of the most convincingly monstrous fathers in contemporary novels. (I should add that this character has the same name as my father, but such is Riley’s adept characterisation I never once experienced a moment of disconcertment). Aislinn has decamped to a town in the Illinois Rust Belt, having previously escaped to New York for space to find her “suffering-to-words ratio”. It is the kind of novel where little happens and everything shifts.

Aislinn has the same brittle, photographic poetry as previous Riley characters: a hog roast is memorably described as “laid out with its trotters pettishly crossed under its snout, under the curds of his cooked eyes. His body was decimated, a basket of grey rags, but somehow there were still clouds of steam pouring from his behind”.

What is more striking is the subtle modulations of the internal voice. Aislinn, with aching precision, interrogates her own responses. After a blazing row with her sort-of love-of-her-life, she anatomises her regret. “Is that a strange thing to say? It seems to me that it might be”. As her father larks around with a couple of lads who are building a shed for him, she muses, “Boys like he had been, maybe... Or boys like he’d never been? That seemed more likely, didn’t it? But – who knew? Who cared, in fact?” These hesitancies and mental revisions have a curious double effect. On one hand, it establishes a brilliantly trustworthy unreliability in Aislinn: the reader is convinced by such attention to the fleeting nuances of thought. On the other hand, it distances us from her: there is something calculating about the spontaneous internal editorialising. A great deal of the emotional complexity in Riley’s novel derives from this ambivalence.

Riley is a psychologically acute novelist. Aislinn is startlingly eloquent about her motivations: in a bravura passage, she describes the cinematic cliché of the soldier standing on a landmine. “This felt a useful metaphor to me back then, anyway; life seeming once again to be pretty well rigged... and similarly, too – it occurred to me – escape would require a substitutionary sleight, a well-weighted illusion left in my stead. Then everyone could be happy”. But what is decidedly clever is the manner in which the blatant, verbalised examinations of states of mind and motivations allows what is unspoken, and perhaps even unconscious, to be brought into play.

There is a significant passage towards the end of the novel where Aislinn’s mother discusses her overwhelming need to have more than one child as a response to her own mother’s determination only to have one: it raises a whole spectrum of questions that Aislinn’s collected, glacial self-scrutiny has allowed to disguise. It creates a space for the reader to wonder how her relationship with her father has affected her relationship with boyfriends, how her mother’s self-sacrifice has conditioned her approach to writing (“I have to get to the point where my only two options are: to do the writing or to kill myself... my aversion is commensurate to my will”).

Opposed Positions offsets its self-consciousness with a wonderful strain of humour: less bitter perhaps than the black comedy of her previous books, but certainly neither mellow nor unbarbed. Details like the tuba-playing stepfather, about whom her mother says, both tragically and hilariously, “Well, it’s someone to go on holiday with”, are done perfectly. There is a scene approaching farce when a drunken ex phones up asking Aislinn to send a picture of her breasts to his mobile phone, which resolves itself in a way which leaves the reader both smug and gloomy. Indeed, almost all the men are mixtures of the pathetic and the pompous, self-aggrandising and self-scuppering at the same time. The manner in which people cleave to the stale ends of cliché – particularly the supremely useless American paramour – is viewed with Olympian disdain and gritted-teeth sympathy.

Although she works on a small canvas, Riley’s work is both intricate and expansive. Her prose is a continual joy to read, and the detail immensely satisfying: she can squeeze more resonance out of a misplaced apostrophe than others can from baroque, technicolour trauma. Her literary style is so wholeheartedly and ambitiously a creation of her own devising that I fully expect the next interesting, stiletto-sharp debut novel by a woman under 30 to be described as Riley-ish, Riley-esque or Gwendolinear.