‘She enjoyed answering questions when she felt she had the right answer, an approved answer. I understood that when I was very small, and could provide the prompts accordingly. Then talking to her was like a game, or a rhyme we were saying together.’
– My Phantoms
[ About the Book ]
Helen Grant is a mystery to her daughter. An extrovert with few friends who has sought intimacy in the wrong places; a twice-divorced mother-of-two now living alone surrounded by her memories, Helen (known to her acquaintances as ‘Hen’) has always haunted Bridget.
Now, Bridget is an academic in her forties. She sees Helen once a year, and considers the problem to be contained. As she looks back on their tumultuous relationship – the performances and small deceptions – she tries to reckon with the cruelties inflicted on both sides. But when Helen makes it clear that she wants more, it seems an old struggle will have to be replayed.
From the prize-winning author of First Love, My Phantoms is a bold, heart-stopping portrayal of a failed familial bond, which brings humour, subtlety and new life to the difficult terrain of mothers and daughters.
[ My Review ]
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley was originally published April 1st 2021 with Granta Books and was shortlisted for the recent Rathbones Folio Prize 2022. I was delighted to receive a copy of all the shortlisted books for review purposes, so it is a real pleasure today to bring you all my thoughts on this sharply written novel, My Phantoms.
Helen and her daughter Bridget have always had a fractured relationship. Growing up, Bridget and her sister, Michelle, were always walking on eggshells, treading lightly in case their behaviour triggered some erratic change in their mother’s behaviour. Helen, known as Hen, is someone who one can assume was certainly very unfulfilled with her life. She rolled with the waves and did as was expected of her as a wife and mother, but was never content with her lot. This lack of accomplishment left her empty, self-centred and never really present for her children.
‘My mother loved rules. She loved rules and codes and fixed expectations. I want to say – as a dog loves an airborne stick. Here was unleashed purpose. Freedom of a sort. Here too was the comfort of the crowd, and of joining in. Of not feeling alone and in the wrong.’
Their father was a difficult man, a person with notions about himself. He was disrespectful of the boundaries between parent and child, openly mocking and teasing Bridget and Michelle when they were younger. There is much left unsaid about their relationship except it’s very clear that neither daughter had much time for him
‘My father so relished in his own triumphs – or the triumphs of people he thought were like him – that it followed (I suppose) that he took an equal, or an equivalent, portion of pleasure in other people’s failures. Their disappointments, their humiliations. He could never hear about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him. Between your mouth and his ears the facts got bent backwards. So he was neither a prospector nor a connoisseur of human shortcomings, really, but rather a 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.’
Now a successful academic living with John, her boyfriend for many years, Bridget dreads the annual meetings she has with her mother. Avoiding introducing her mother to John, they always meet at a restaurant, the same one for many years, but Bridget performs her role purely out of filial duty. It grates on her every time, as she builds up the imagined scenario of the evening ahead. Bridget always gets wound up, angered and frustrated, feelings which spill over when with her mother and then, after, Bridget feels somewhat remorseful.
As time passes their relationship shifts and, as her mother’s health declines, more is required from Bridget than she really wants to give. Bridget is quite a resentful individual and the pain she carries from her younger years is deeply entrenched, having a lasting impact on her mindset. Michelle carries most of the brunt, as she lives closer to Hen, but Bridget does make a few concessions and arrives when her services are most required.
My Phantoms is a compact book, at just less than two hundred pages, but each word, every sentence is very thoughtfully constructed with minimal language expertly utilised. The relationship of a dysfunctional family is central to this story with Gwendoline Riley providing minimal background, yet enough to give the reader an insight into the personalities and the shattered familial bond of those involved. The writing is precise affording the reader the opportunity to stop and contemplate a chapter before moving on. Divided into five acts, My Phantoms asks the question about the supposed unconditional love between parent and child. As a reader we struggle with aligning our empathy to one side or the other. Bridget is set at a distance from us. She is narrating the story so it is through her lens that we must rationalise our thoughts and feelings. Hen is an individual who has clearly not led a happy life and has not been the best of mothers but who are we to judge?
My Phantoms is a complex study, a sophisticated and sharply presented tale with a disconcerting edge, a very intriguing and hard-hitting novel.
[ Bio ]
GWENDOLINE RILEY was born in London in 1979 and has been hailed as one of the most significant young British writers. She is is the author of First Love, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Literature, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Gordon Burn Prize, and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; Cold Water, Sick Notes, Joshua Spassky and Opposed Positions. She has also been awarded a Betty Trask Award and a Somerset Maugham Award, and has been shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. In 2018, the Times Literary Supplement named her as one of the twenty best British and Irish novelists working today.