Sick Notes: Gwendoline Riley

I’m not sure what to say about this book. I read it very quickly, and the whole way through I struggled with two irreconcilable critical opinions. On the one hand, I absolutely loved it. On the other, I hated it. The only possible way to reach something approaching a consensus would be to say that I hated myself for enjoying it. Not a promising start, I agree.

A bit of background: I picked this up because I read an interview with the author in one of the weekend review supplements, where Riley was being hailed as one of the most exciting young writers around. I am often chastised by various friends about the fact that my bookshelves are disproportionately populated by dead, white, male authors; as they say, ‘it’s a fair cop’. In my bid to broaden my literary horizons (which is part of the point of this blog) I’m always on the lookout for well-reviewed up-and-coming, perhaps little-known and unstudied authors. Gwendoline Riley seemed to fit the bill, so I sought her out. The back of my copy reads: ‘Sick Notes is a powerful and moving study of urban disaffection, female friendship and the longing for love and redemption.’ I guess that about sums it up, but for whatever reason she took me completely by surprise.

Now, I love a bit of urban disaffection: I’m something of a disaffected urbanite myself, and my specialism in the field of literary study is Modernism, where they lay it on pretty thick. I’m also big on female friendship, can’t get enough of it in fact; and I’m a reluctant expert in the longing for love and redemption. Put all these things together, as the blurb would suggest, and you might think it’s all systems go. Well; yes and no. I guess what I wasn’t prepared for is the closeness of this novel. Riley’s prose is claustrophobic. It’s like being inside the head of a teenage woman-child with an empty stomach, cold feet and a drinking problem. And whilst I’m sure we can all relate on some level, I’m not sure that I want to. It all seems a little self-indulgent.

Having said that, however, by god is it beautifully executed. The whole thing is like a whirlwind of hormones, booze and hunger and anxiety and draughty rooms; you can really feel out every crackle of a bare duvet on skin; the rain pelting down, the ice in a glass of gin in a dingy bar. Everything perfectly observed and damningly examined. The shark-eyes of drunks; the dry teabags on the windowsill; the unopened boxes in the corner. There’s something exhilarating about the momentum of the thing. Like the desire that grips one, ever more rarely as the years stack up, to get lost for a few days… a rush of self-annihilating giddiness. It left me feeling self-conscious and a little embarrassed at how swept up I’d become. Exactly like a night on the tiles, I guess.

I’m going to come back to Gwendoline Riley, I’m sure, inevitably, but I think we need to take a break.

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