My Phantoms is Gwendoline Riley’s sixth novel, a brilliantly observed, lacerating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that really gets under the skin. This book has attracted a raft of praise recently, largely prompted by Andy Miller’s enthusiastic support for it on Twitter. It’s a deeply uncomfortable read, veering between the desperately sad and the excruciatingly funny; and yet, like a car crash unfolding before our eyes, it’s hard to look away.
The novel is narrated by Bridget, who is difficult to get a handle on, other than what she tells us about her parents, Helen (aka ‘Hen’) and Lee Grant. Lee, who features heavily in the early chapters of the book, is one of those awful men who delight in badgering anyone who happens to fall within their orbit, physically pinching or goading his daughters on a regular basis. Bridget and her sister Michelle employ various strategies to pre-empt and deal with his mockery – some of them successful, others less so. He is a truly dreadful character, but sadly all too recognisable. (I had an uncle in a broadly similar vein, a loudmouth who taunted me for going to university when I really ought to have been working to earn a proper wage.)
He [Lee] could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him. And as with his boasting about his past, these things didn’t need to have actually happened for him to enjoy them. The fact that he enjoyed them somehow brought them into being, with each innocuous piece of news you shared with him somehow always ending up as a perfect illustration of some risible misstep. Between your mouth and his ear the facts got bent backwards. So he was neither a prospector nor a connoisseur of human shortcomings, really, but rather a sort of processing plant which turned all information into the same brand of thrilling treat: that someone had had a knock-back or that someone had looked a fool. (p. 21–22)
Hen is another complex, deeply flawed character, albeit in a completely different way to Lee. Now in her late sixties, twice-divorced and living alone in Manchester, Hen is constantly trying to join social clubs and groups without ever developing any real friendships or meaningful relationships with others. Any degree of emotional investment on Hen’s part is sadly lacking. Moreover, there is a sense of Hen doing these things without deriving any enjoyment or pleasure from them, going through the motions of a social life because it’s what people should do.
I’m not sure what she [Hen] would have done with friends. Friends who, one imagines, might have wanted to ask her how she was now and then; who might even have expected her to return the interest. I suppose it had just lodged in her mind that one should have them; that it was ‘what people did’. (p. 59)
Having put herself out there, Hen feels that life owes her something in return, someone she can go to the cinema with, maybe even share a life with, like other people do. In theory, Hen’s second husband, Joe, ought to have been able to fulfil this role, but his coarse, boorish nature and lack of interest in going anywhere at all put the kibosh on that. After two years, their relationship ended acrimoniously, prompting Hen’s move to Manchester to distance herself from Joe’s circle.
As far as Bridget sees it, Hen is fixated with a feeling of exclusion from normal life, that she is not getting her just rewards for playing by the rules and putting the effort in when required. Despite throwing herself into Wine Circle, volunteering, various tours and excursions, Hen remains largely unfulfilled – something that Bridget finally tackles with Hen, suggesting therapy as a potential solution.
‘Are you listening, Mum?’ I said. ‘Can I tell you what I think? You need to think about what you want. And why what you get seems to leave you so empty. This comes up a lot with you, this note of disappointed expectation. I think you feel like a bargain has been broken when you say you do what you’re supposed to do. You understand that a deal was never struck, don’t you?’ (pp. 144-145)
For much of the novel, Bridget keeps contact with Hen to a minimum, speaking to her occasionally on the phone, meeting up once or twice a year, ultimately culminating in a strained annual birthday meal that typically feels like a confrontation. Mother and daughter don’t engage in conversations as such. Instead, their exchanges rely on Bridget feeding Hen tried and trusted prompts, ‘combustible material’ that the latter is sure to respond to.
That scrabble for combustible material … My instinct was that it was the best thing to do; that it kept something else at bay. But I did not feel good about it; about the way, for instance, I used to ask this routinely overlooked and ignored woman about men. ‘Any potential new boyfriends?’ I’d say, brightly, every year, knowing that that would take care of half an hour or so as my mother talked up her latest crush and I reacted and speculated, and asked for details, and made a show of considering what they might indicate. (p. 82)
In return, Bridget tries to avoid revealing too much in the way of happiness or enjoyment in her own life, fearing that this will upset her mother or prompt the wrong kind of response. Occasionally though, the temptation to provoke cuts through the façade as Bridget wrestles with her demons.
As the novel unfolds, we learn more about the boundaries that Bridget has put in place to protect herself – things the reader begins to question in conjunction with Hen. Why, for example, has Hen never been ‘allowed’ to meet Bridget’s partner, John? (Bridget’s home is another example of something that appears to be off limits to Hen. She actually turns up unannounced at one point, and it’s an agonising scene to observe.) And why do we get the sense that Bridget might be withholding information from the reader, presenting us with a partial version of events in her ‘charade’ with Hen? These questions and more haunt the narrative as it moves towards its unflinching conclusion.
My Phantoms is a fascinating character study, one that captures the bitterness, pain and irritation of a toxic mother-daughter relationship with sharpness and precision. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, some of the best I’ve read this year, especially for illustrating character traits. While I’m not sure that I’ve fully understood Bridget as a person in her own right, the novel itself contains so many relatable scenes, especially for those of us with complex or troublesome families. It’s a truly uncomfortable read, for all the right reasons.
My Phantoms is published by Granta. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.
I noticed this appearing a few times in the annual list of contemporary writer’s favourite reads of 2021in the Guardian. It does seem to be a novel that’s garnering attention, a clash of the generations through mother daughter relations and the way denial continues to fuel conflict between them.
Yes, it’s picked up a lot of critical acclaim, particularly in recent months. I’m acutely conscious that everything we see and hear is filtered through Bridget, so it’s a very singular view of the relationship – deliberately so, I think.
Great review, Jacqui. I avoided this one after finding First Love so excruciating but perhaps I should get over that.
Thanks, Susan. I looked at First Love and tried to read the early chapters but was put off by the use of a certain c-word, which I won’t repeat here. Maybe it was just the wrong time for me to have picked it up, but based on the strength of My Phantoms, I’m minded to try again. Excruciating is definitely a word I would use to describe this one – deliberately so, I think!
I read a proof of this late last year and really loved it.
I like your allusion to the car crash, I feel horrified and yet intrigued!
It’s an apt description, I think…
I’ve had a mixed experience with Riley but I do think she’s brilliant at capturing such dysfunctional, toxic relationships. She’s always a tough read so although I wouldn’t rush to this one right now, I’ll definitely look out for it at some point!
I can totally understand that, Madame Bibi. You have to be in the *right* frame of mind for something as lacerating as this, particularly as it feels so authentic and true. I think Riley nails so much of what’s awful about toxic family relationships here…it feels uncannily accurate. Even though my uncle wasn’t quite as bad as Lee, he definitely shared some of his traits, so I found that section of the novel eminently relatable.
I’ve seen this one getting a lot of critical acclaim and it certainly does sound very well done. Mother-daughter relationships can be such a complex and difficult thing – I’ve had that in my life – and the dreadful uncle sounds very familiar too… However good this is, though, I suspect it’s not the right book for me at the moment so I’ll keeo it on the back burner until the time is right.
I suspect you’re very wise in deciding that it’s not right for you at the moment, Karen. It’s not a novel I would recommend to everyone — for instance, two or three members of my book group would almost certainly detest the characters, irrespective of the quality of the writing (which I think is top-notch). But for the right reader at the right time, it’s a very potent book.
I saw Andy tweeting about this enthusiastically. It sounds brilliant, I love these kinds of detailed character studies. Lee sounds awful but utterly fascinating (and horribly recognisable). I love mother daughter stories, so this is going straight on the wishlist.
Yes, he’s horribly recognisable! As I was just saying above, even though my uncle wasn’t quite as awful as Lee, he definitely shared some of his traits, so I found that section of the novel eminently relatable. His children weren’t academically minded and left school at sixteen with few qualifications, So the fact that I was the first member of my dad’s side of the family to go to University really choked him. It was a jealousy thing on his part I think, but it got so bad that my mum cut ties with him and we stopped visiting…
I didn’t know the work of Gwedoline Riley but discovered she has published about six books . The review I read of First Love certainly wouldn’tmake me want to read it. Your point about the violence of the language accorded with my view; it seemed excessive and oppressive.
Yeah, it’s strong stuff. Probably not a book I would recommend to you, Gert, as I fear you wouldn’t thank me for it!
This book really has been getting a lot of attention recently and Grant is an all too-familiar figure. But the book does sound fascinating in portraying an in-depth relationship of two difficult characters through the eyes of an unreliable one.
That’s the thing…I’m not sure how much we can trust Bridget’s account of these relationships as everything we see is filtered through her perspective. That’s a very deliberate choice on Riley’s part, I suspect. I’m half minded to choose it for my book club in future, as it’s a fascinating novel to discuss…but I’d put money on at least two (possibly three) members of the group hating it because the characters are so *unlikeable*!
Oh, you should! Ah, the good old likeability index…
I’m tempted, for sure…
I found this really interesting, though, a bit like A Whole Life, the differing interpretations of different readers were even more interesting! The more I read the less sympathy I had for Bridget and the more I wondered whether her parents were really that awful or just embarrassing.
I know what you mean about Bridget and her perceptions of Lee and Hen – she’s ashamed of them, for sure. That said, I’ve got quite a lot of sympathy for her embarrassment over Lee (more so than with Hen). As I mentioned in my post, I had an uncle who shared some (but not all) of Lee’s dreadful characteristics, and he was a ****ing nightmare. Mum and I cut ties with his branch of the family in the end because visits were becoming increasingly intolerable. Every time we went to see them, we had to find our way to new place. They moved house every six months or so because his wife had ‘fallen out’ with the neighbours. It was dreadful…
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Ah, that nuclear family, hot bed of neuroses! What would literature be without it? I think I saw a quote once, to the effect that the greatest gift a writer could have was an unhappy childhood!
I’ve been seeing the buzz about Phantoms and thought it might be interesting, if a little painful (some of those relatives sound like types with which I’m personally familiar). Not sure whether I’ll get to it, but I’ve just been doing a little clicking on the author, who seems definitely worth checking out.
Yes, there’s quite a groundswell of buzz around Riley at the moment, isn’t there? A steady build over the past few months. She seems to have a very singular style, if you know what I mean. A little like Anita Brookner in the sense that she seems to stick to very similar themes, honing her craft and portrayals of these dysfunctional/toxic relationships with each successive book. That’s definitely the impression I’ve formed by reading about her as an author.
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