Opposed Positions

Gwendoline Riley

Published by Jonathan Cape, 17 May 2012

240pp, hardback,  £14.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

Contenders for the title of worst fathers in literature – Willy Loman, King Lear, the Mayor of Casterbridge et al – need to move over and admit a new member to the ranks: Brian Kelly, the intuitively abusive parent of Aislinn. Gwendoline Riley’s fourth novel offers a portrait of relentless bile so instinctive, wholly inescapable and immediate it brings the reader out in a cold sweat.

One damaging parent leaving indelible finger marks on a young soul would be bad enough, but, as Aislinn slowly learns, she and her brother Liam have had a second broken role model to contend with – their mother. If one of Brian’s favourite taunts is to deride Aislinn for her ‘pout’, her mother can match it with ‘sullen’. And there’s worse: a cycle of poor judgement in men which, Aislinn comes to see, will never be broken.

There’s a flavour of A.L. Kennedy to Riley’s delicately surgical depiction of the family as black hole, with its flashes of acrid humor and sense of rootless modernity. But the terrain is one Riley has made her own: an intense narrator with a social circle comprised of unhappy, unsettled and nihilistic boozers and creative drifters. Attracted to her floating isolation, this flakey group exerts a curiously heart-warming charm.

Ranging from Manchester to New York and Indianapolis, where Aislinn finds her constricting social and family bonds ‘beautifully dissolved’ and can write, this short novel laces its devastating observation of relationships with disturbing maturity. If next year’s Orange judging panel doesn’t take notice of Riley, it will have missed a trick.

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