Gwendoline Riley’s debut novel Cold Water was published in 2002, when she was 22 or 23, and which I first read at the same age. She publishes very slim novels, one every few years, with female narrators who work in bars in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, write novels, fall and fail to fall in love with musicians and other rain-wet bohemians. There’s a new one Opposed Positions coming out on 17 May, which I’m looking forward to.
Cold Water is a very witty, perfectly controlled novel, with prose that skates across thin ice over the blackness of narrator Carmel’s despair. She’s too dignified and Northern to face this directly and cheapen it with ‘bland words’. Her dismissal of self-indulgent sentiment is delightful; she won’t be one of those people who ‘carry their emotional life around with them like a dead rat in a shoebox’. She wants to describe the world with panache, to surround herself with those who face it either truthfully or stylishly, whether this is with her fellow barmaids or the authors on her shelves.
There’s not much of an overall story. The narrator’s sadness is in part because of an abusive father, in part at being recently dumped (‘for a tap dancer. Despair reigns . . . That sounds like a crossword clue.’) But in spite of a lack of plot, the novel is completely addictive because of how engaging and eloquent the narrator is, how illuminating it is to see the world through her eyes and notice what she notices.
The tone is beautiful throughout and often results from the narrator’s romantic hope pulling against her bruised realism, the contradictory urge ‘to blush or to bite’. This refusal to simplify, this balance between love and despair, is what makes the writing so joyful for me.
Riley is a brilliant, economical describer of people, caught characteristically between cruel honesty and compassion, between exasperation and patience as she watches the way the regulars in the bar narrate themselves, perform their old routines. Her narrators are always making new friends and losing old ones, hopeful but refusing to compromise. Their mordant irony earns them the right to surprising flashes of earnestness: ‘when you find a real friend . . . someone puts their arm around you. That seems like the most wonderful thing to me.’
That’s how I felt when I re-read this novel. I wanted to hear more and more of this very perceptive, funny and original voice.