My Phantoms: Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley’s novel, My Phantoms, is a detailed painful look at divorced parents through the eyes of Bridget, one of two daughters. I came to this novel with no expectations, and found bitter observations and a blistering analysis of two flawed people who met and unfortunately had 2 daughters. While childhood and child-parent relationships are fraught with emotional issues, the author uses the precision skill of a practiced, emotionally detached surgeon to dissect these relationships. The father-child interactions here are toxic, but the decades longer mother-daughter relationship is even more so.

Bridget’s parents divorced when she and her sister, Michelle, were very young. So when Bridget begins her analysis of her parents, it’s post divorce and we are in the long bitter period of visitation. Bridget’s father, Lee, is a horrible man–no he doesn’t molest her or whack her; he harasses her and perhaps I’ll ‘generously’ say attempts to engage her by belittlement. He seems to be threatened by Bridget’s intelligence and education. “His company was something to be weathered.”

Bridget’s almost reptilian nature coldly records her father’s petty, predictable behaviour. He nurses an image of himself as authentic, a “swashbuckling bandit.” He brags about not paying maintenance to his X, and “could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him.” Yes a real winner.

Later, when I applying to universities, he told me that at his job interviews he always put his feet up on the desk, lit a cigarette and asked the panel what they could do for him. Was that from television? I wonder. I’m afraid that one might have been taken from life.

It is strange when somebody talks to you like that. When they’re lying, but somehow you’re on the spot. Was he trying to impress us? But that could hardly be the case: you couldn’t value someone’s good opinion while thinking they would buy this kind of crap. And then there was the fact that no one was required to respond to his grandstanding.

After hearing about Bridget’s awful father, we learn about Bridget’s mother, Helen. ‘Hen,’ is also a difficult person. Post divorce Hen begins a “programme of renewal” in Liverpool which involves chaotically throwing herself into hobbies, outings, and events which hold little or no interest. Bridget notes that her mother “was never not out, it seemed. She was never not busy.” Yet “the fabled friends never materialized.” The one person who remains in Hen’s life is a gay man, Griff:

They were a sort of old-style double act, with him the tyrantacolyte and her in a state of perpetual effort.

The novel is almost in 2 parts: Bridget’s childhood and then Bridget as an adult. While reading Bridget’s childhood memories I hoped things would improve with time, but adulthood doesn’t seem much better. However, it must be admitted that Bridget’s adulthood is seen only as it pertains to her mother Hen. In childhood Bridget was subject to her parents’ whims and fancies, and in adulthood tensions remain and games–oldies but goodies–are played.

Bridget’s mother lives in Liverpool and later in Manchester so their meetings are, mercifully few, but nonetheless the annual birthday date is an arena for challenges, snide observations, and sly criticisms. The book is beautifully written, and I felt as though I knew Bridget’s parents. I had tremendous sympathy for Bridget the child–many of us must endure parents who appear to have no genetic connection to us, but by the time Bridget the adult appeared, I wanted her to lighten up. Bridget’s mother is a flawed sometimes frustrating human being but honestly… is she that bad? OK so you have little in common with your mother, but is that her problem or your problem?

She painted a beguiling picture, if you were susceptible to that kind of thing: lonely only child; breathless little girl who had to do this and had to do that. I was not susceptible, but then nor did I ever quite feel that I was the intended audience when she took on like this. There was some other figure she’d conceived and was playing to. That’s how it felt. Somebody beyond our life.

Slowly we see the lines of Bridget and Hen’s carefully crafted relationship–adversarial, toxic, petty. Why isn’t Hen allowed to meet Bridget’s long-time companion, John? Why isn’t Hen allowed into Bridget’s home? Who has the problem here?

This is the sort of book that can get under your skin and one which will generate a range of opinions. One of the most fascinating things here (and I’ll admit I was fascinated by several–it’s like watching a slow poisoning) is the underlying idea of the narratives we give our lives and the lives of others. The novel was, for this reader, a intriguing read. It raises some great questions about the cross generational transference of toxic behaviour. Bridget initially is the recipient/observer of her parents’ behaviors and games, but then when she is an adult, she’s into the games too. I cringed at several points when she lodged a pointless barb like a poison arrow at her mother.

The brilliancy here is embedded in Bridget’s description of her mother’s life narrative. Most people tend to have a narrative of their lives–some are spot-on and some are wildly inaccurate. In this novel, Bridget has a narrative of her mother’s life–Hen’s life is one of disappointment and exclusion. Hen has tried throwing herself into a social whirl but somehow never is included, and her life long friendship remains with Griff who seems alternately tickled and frustrated with Hen. Bridget seems to take a perverse delight in poking her mother for reactions that will then slot into that grim narrative. Additionally Bridget contributes to that narrative by excluding her mother from her life, refusing to let her visit her home to meet her long-time boyfriend, and keeping contact to a superficial minimum. My Phantoms is an excellent–albeit depressing read.

review copy

4 Comments

Filed under posts, Riley Gwendoline

4 responses to “My Phantoms: Gwendoline Riley

  1. Oh dear, I’m no Pollyanna but to me this sounds awful. Not one for my TBR!

  2. Skilled writing, but very sad.

  3. Really interested to read how this has landed with you Guy. It’s so rich and provocative for a relatively short book. I’ve read 3 by her and though they are all similar in tone and territory, I think she’s such a strong writer that I am along for the ride each time.

    I like how you land on the disconnect between the narrator’s cool, supposedly analytical tone, and what she really reveals about herself and her mother. Strikes me that the key is the title: are we dispassionate and objective about something that haunts us?

  4. I will definitely be reading more by this author. After finishing the book, I thought how some people would have thought Hen was game throwing herself back into the arena time after time even though these excursions were ultimately disappointing. But then Hen seemed to enjoy the disappointment on some level.

    Bridget annoyed me to be honest. Ok so you don’t like your mother.. she gets under your skin.. fair enough–I get it but try having a crack ho for a mother or a self-medicated suicide-threatening neurotic and then we’ll talk. Ultimately, Hen doesn’t want/expect much from her daughter. I think they are more alike than either of them would like to admit.

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