Category Archives: Riley Gwendoline

First Love: Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms takes a cold analytical approach to the narrator’s toxic relationships with her parents. Children can’t escape their parents’ mind games until they learn the rules of engagement, and then they should refuse to play. Through shared features, First Love could be considered a tangential novel to My Phantoms. Both novels are narrated by young women, and the mothers in both novels share characteristics and geographic locations. The mothers in these two novels could be the same person, seen through a less critical eye in First Love, and it’s a toss up whether the father in My Phantoms is more repugnant than the father in First Love. The major difference between the novels is the emotional territory. The narrator in My Phantoms focuses primarily on her mother. In First Love, the narrator has two major relationships–both toxic, but the narrator’s relationship with her mother seems like party-time compared to her toxic intimate relationships.

The novel begins with the narrator, Neve, a writer/teacher who has moved to London, to live with Edwyn. When the novel opens, they have been living together for 18 months. There’s the sense that perhaps things were good earlier in the relationship (“I’d watch for Edwyn in the evenings.”) But the relationship has declined and consists of a barrage of emotional abuse. Edwyn is now a sick man; he’s middle-aged, is post-heart surgery, and is in constant pain. Neve remains in the home living under a barrage of insults. Neve and Edwyn even marry at one point on the advice of his lawyer. The scenes between Edwyn and Neve are dreadful–not just the insults, but the slow torture of one person slicing into another’s every word. There are times when Neve begins to chat, as one does to one’s partner, but Edwyn isn’t having it:

I was casting around for something to say, and then as soon as I’d said it–“Lonely”–I knew what was coming. Finding out what you already know. Repeatedly. That’s not sane, is it? And while he might have said that this was how he was, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me. Why? I wonder how much he even noticed, hopped up as he was. No, I didn’t believe he did notice. That was the lesson, I think. That none of it was personal.

Over time and some very painful, spiteful scenes, Neve learns how to cope. Numbed to the point of compliance, she knows when dealing with Edwyn, not to try and clarify. Instead she learns how to placate:

So it was both strange, and dreadful–I knew it–to feel that I was managing him, in a way. Beyond bringing him out of himself, or my genuine interest; that I was maintaining this keen and appreciative front as a way to keep him calm, or to distract him. Like –I don’t know–throwing some sausages at a guard dog.

Post Edwyn, Neve’s life is better for his absence, but still her life seems flat, stark and joyless. In the past is Neve’s ‘great’ love, a man named Michael. The affair did not end well, and for some reason, Neve reconnects with Michael when he drifts back into her life. Michael is a strange, self-focused man, and his relationship with Neve has fuzzy edges. Neve’s friendships seem more successful. Loved her friend Bridie whose texts leave Neve with a feeling of missing out, but when they finally meet, it seems that Bridie is prone to exaggeration and her life is a mess.

Neve’s mother is very like the mother in My Phantoms–a woman who throws herself into a frantic round of social activities while not enjoying it in the least. Her mother’s relationships with men are problematic–she invites herself to visit a younger man in America, and so the trip is destined to disappoint in a life full of disappointment and exclusion. The behaviour of Neve’s father, a man who ate himself to death, probably goes a long way to explaining why Neve stays with Edwyn. She has no idea what is normal, and there are no doubt financial reasons behind Neve’s continuing to live under Edwyn’s abuse. Sharp, dark and bitter, First Love makes my best-of-year list.

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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.

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