They’ve known each other, Joshua Spassky and Natalie, for five years, and have often met, as lovers. They last met at the West Yorkshire Playhouse; Joshua was over from the US rehearsing a play he’d written. But they’d not seen each other in a while. She stops off at the ladies on her way to find him: ‘I rubbed make-up onto my nose and cheeks, under my eyes. I had another drink in there, too, and then leaned back on the sinks and waited, watching the minutes pass on the clock on my phone. My heart was beating quite purposefully.’ When she arrives at the rehearsal room, the actors stop mid-line and stare. Their pause rouses Joshua:
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘hey,’ and he stood up, and bent down to put his coffee cup on the floor.
He edged out into the aisle. His hair was longer. A strand went in my mouth when he gave me a hug.
Because a love story needs a star-crossed pair, most of them start with a meeting. Joshua Spassky, Gwendoline Riley’s third novel and, however shooshed up it is, a love story, doesn’t start with the meeting described above, which comes only thirty pages before the novel’s end. And of their first meeting we are not told much more than that Joshua had been ominously introduced by a friend as ‘the man himself’. Riley is interested in a lot of things – looking closely, remembering, restraint – but is most interested in telling an old story in a new way. She tries out several ways of doing this in Joshua Spassky; withholding, dramatising and then unravelling her lovers’ meeting is the first of them.
The novel actually begins some time after Joshua and Natalie saw each other in Leeds, with this sentence: ‘Jeane came to see me before I left.’ This is Natalie’s voice. Where she’s going and why isn’t yet clear, but she’s abandoned her sofa to the Manchester rain, so she can’t be going away for the weekend. They talk about love. Jeane is in a long-distance relationship with Mick:
‘Whether we’re together or not is a piece of trivia. I don’t think love is a matter of logistics, Natalie. Love is there,’ she said, and she looked at me as she patted her hand on the floor.
‘It’s right there.’ She patted the same place, rubbed the orange laminate. ‘All the time. Like a – saucer.’
This moment, so close to the beginning of the novel that the reader doesn’t know what kind of book it is yet, is one of the most and least romantic in the novel. Despite obstacles, Jeane is saying, love persists, like the saucer beneath a teacup. Yet Jeane rubs the laminate before settling on the image of the saucer, so she might have been thinking love was like something else: the ground beneath one’s feet. And it is not romantic at all to think of saying that love is what supports our every step and then abandon the metaphor for a simile about crockery – and a pretty redundant bit of crockery at that. Riley clearly isn’t anxious for her plot as she opens her novel. Instead, she uses Jeane’s words to establish an idea (and its shadow), as well as pinning down a mood by dressing the scene with a rain-bloated sofa, an empty front room, orangey wood laminate, and a ‘tiny cloud of bent hair knots and grey fluff’. Jeane’s last question to Natalie, hanging unanswered at the end of the chapter, confirms that the beginning is also an ending: ‘Are you coming back?’
If Natalie is not coming back from wherever she’s going, there are some things to be straightened out. The paper inside a box Natalie had ‘marker-penned with “MISC”’ is being torn up and put in a black bin-liner. The ‘thin, dry’ paper is all that’s left of her family. Her father died when she was 12: ‘On Easter Monday he was admitted to hospital with his angina and on the Friday he had a heart attack and died.’ Her mother died more recently. But it’s not as if her parents were happy together:
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