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The Bookchurch Review: 'Joshua Spassky' by Gwendoline Riley

Joshua Spassky
by Gwendoline Riley
Review written by Patrick Hussey.

When I first saw a Gwendoline Riley book in May 2002 I had been graduated for a year and was working in a bookshop. It was an rotten job with an Aspergic manager, the type who kept dropping tenners and then smiling when I handed them back. The staff were all older and had a sort of lost stink. Nice but lost. I tried to ignore them as much as possible and hid in the staff room reading.

Working in a bookshop was awful but at least it was an independent and the books were worth stealing, you see we had lots of foreign ones. Turgenev, Denis Johnson. I first read Checkhov's The Steppe from cover to cover in the toilet. I ripped through Bukowski and Tolstoy. Those books all seemed so much bigger than anything I had read before, something in their crazed honesty seemed to be the point of writing. How come only only dead Russians and mad Yanks got it?

Then on the fiction table, the one I often hid behind when customers walked in, I saw a thin volume with a shell on the front. Cold Water, Riley's first novel with that pouty picture in the back. Suddenly here was someone who got it. She was twenty two and wrote about the atomised Britain I knew.

You'll read a lot of white noise about Riley. How young she is, a cult figure, a pretty girl. In fact Google her and you'll find a chat room where users laud her for being trashed at an afternoon reading. Forget all that for now, Riley's work is spiritually grand and acutely delivered. That is why she is worth reading.

Whilst I was melting in a poverty trap job, looking for meaning in that early twenties way I picked up Cold Water and fell in love. She more than held her own amongst all that rocket fuel lit I was reading at the time. Informed by the kind of authentic existentialism you get from say Dostoevsky and so rarely in British writing, Riley is perhaps the only great working British writer.

Critics seem shy of admitting that. Shouldn't they cite the grandees of Brit lit? The ones who are in their fifties, who hang balanced but bloodless words on plots? The fat books that 'span generations' ? Perhaps they feel Riley is just too young, her books too thin. Truth is most of them would rather spend two hours on a Riley book than a fortnight with some bullshitter's tome.

Riley's tiny novels are certainly snack sized, a sort of literary beans on toast but there might be another reason she is the best writer you've never heard of. Riley, truth be told, is going backwards.

In some ways Joshua Spassky, her third and latest novel, is her worst book. Her trademark imagery, at once is so literary but so fresh, is less in evidence, the characters and the world they move in more lazily sketched.

In all three books Riley speaks through a young female narrator and Spassky is no different. Her voice is that of the arty drinking type- attracted to beauty, prone to emotional petrification. They wait for something to happen. First there was Carmel in 'Cold Water' and then 'Esther' in SIck Notes. These characters seem overtly autobiographical, all three books reading like the same girl's diary, indeed from Sick Notes on the character is a published writer.

That book carried dark hints as to Carmel/Esther's emotional darkness. At first it seems she has been overseas but later on it seems she might not be telling the truth. Like her namesake from the Bell Jar has Esther suffered a breakdown and been institutionalised?

It is hard to tell how much Riley plays with the reader, the hints at her own life are tantalising but obscured in literary smoke. Still the pretense seems even further dropped in Joshua Spassky. 'Natalie' , Riley's latest front, travels to America to meet with the love of her life, the drunk play write, Joshua Spassky himself.

Their's has been a staccato, wrenching affair, sodden in alcohol and Riley gives them an appropriately bleak stage. They hole up in an anonymous hotel, the anywhere town of Asheville, North Carolina. Yet of course it isn't random. Zelda Fitzgerald burnt to death in the town's loony bin.

Despite the bleak reference the book ends with the possibility of hope. After much bookworm drunkeness ( sweaty sheets and scotchy bon mots) the couple come to terms with the fact they might have a future. It should be touching, Riley's great theme in all her books has been the ache for vast love but this portrait is just not worthy of her ability. Waiting for something to happen and doing it beautifully is her subject and phrases from Cold Water and Sick Notes have stayed with me for years. Nothing sticks from Joshua Spassky.

There are still some good moments though. You get the sense Riley is trying to blend that imagery of hers into a more natural style. She seems to want to remove all literary pretense and present us with slices of her life. There is an attempt here to convey big feelings in freehand, less details for frameless poetry. Any attempt to abandon convention and stray into pure communication is an interesting gamble but in truth it doesn't work everywhere. This book lacks the distillation needed for her normal detail and punch.

Even though it has that 'homework done on the bus' feel I still liked Spassky. It has morsels of excellence and that distinctive Riley tang. Perhaps it is just a moment of transition, the conclusion of used up themes and the first attempts at a different style. Time will tell, but if you do pick up a Riley book then make it Cold Water.

Riley is still special, thing is she's been better.

Riley Links:

Check out this radio interview on the BBC RIley fans and click here for a well written second opinion from the Observer.

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