No 415 Cold Water by Gwendoline Riley Book 4 of #20booksofsummer

In the last few years I have read two books by Gwendoline Riley – First Love and My Phantoms – and have been incredibly impressed by both. My Phantoms was in my top books of 2020.

Cold Water is Riley’s debut novel, published in 2002. While it is in no way as impressive as her recent books, it still bears the hallmarks of her best work, featuring young women in difficult relationships, vague characters, within loose narratives and a striking sense of atmosphere and place.

Carmel McKisco is a smart, turbulent 20-year-old with a hungered hankering for something more. She works nights in a scuzzy bar in Manchester, frequented by a small collective of regulars with whom she drinks, banters and muses on life. According to a news clipping behind the bar, George Best once poured champagne into a glass pyramid but nowadays the pub is more likely to be frequented by more lugubrious types.

That’s how Carmel likes it. She had a job in a smart coffee shop and quit after a day. Her job at the pub gives her a certain amount of freedom and when she isn’t working, she moves blithely through her city, going to gigs with her workmate Margi, drinking, borrowing books from the library and going to the cinema. Carmel dreams of a different life, but the shape of it is still vague. She wants to move to Cornwall, where her ex Tony now lives, but the furthest she gets is Macclesfield, home of Steven, her adolescent musical hero who is now a washed-up junkie.

I know in the big picture my thing about that band, and my think with Tony, possibly shouldn’t mean so much. But you see, the point is, I’m not in the big picture. I’m in Manchester…

In terms of plot, that’s about it. Cold Water is less a linear narrative, and concentrates instead on a series of vignettes, shining a light on the banality of everyday life. In Riley’s hands, the trivial can become captivating – in any life, the smallest things can turn out to be the most important. In well-drawn vignettes she offers snippets of the different lives that orbit around Carmel, vignettes that suggest that this slim work could spin off in many other directions.

Characters come and go in Cold Water, sometimes leaving abruptly and sometimes fading away. Riley deftly explores Carmel’s need to make connection, to create something meaningful. Surrounded by so many transitory relationships, Carmel is looking for authenticity; in her friendships, her culture, and her individuality.

Your feelings can seem so fragile and unlikely, why not keep them strange and beautiful instead of sharing them with anyone who’ll listen.

Cold Water is a slight book that succeeds mainly because of the dry, witty voice of Carmel, the narrator. A smart, street-wise, decidedly unsentimental young woman, she journeys through the omnipresent rain of Manchester, dreaming of some great escape to Cornwall, but you get the feeling she might be disappointed if she ever actually arrived there. 

And yet, for all that is impressive here, Cold Water doesn’t add up to a great deal more than a series of well-wrought sketches. The plot is too slight to be in any way substantial, however Riley’s enviable skill for capturing mood and atmosphere are on fine display and this debut proves a great foundation for the work that was to come.


20 Books of Summer The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

20 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I heard Naomi and Kirsty discussing this on a recent edition their Late to It podcast and it sounded interesting as a stepping stone for some of the books that followed. Best viewed, perhaps, as part of a larger body of work.


  2. I don’t think I’d find this a very satisfying read – it sounds too fragmented for my tastes. Given your comments though it sounds like her more recent work would be more interesting


  3. I’d be interested to read Cold Water. As you know, I thought both First Love and My Phantoms were excellent but they were quite similar thematically, so I’d be keen to see her tackle slightly different ground.

    Liked by 1 person

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