Gwendoline Riley’s unsentimental fiction hovers on the edge of comedy and bleakness, and has drawn comparisons from Jean Rhys to Albert Camus. First Love, her fifth novel, put a toxic relationship under the microscope, winning the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2017 and being shortlisted for five others, including the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Expanding on one of its strands, her sixth book zeroes in on child/parent dynamics.
In My Phantoms, Bridget, an academic, reflects on her relationship with her late father and mother. Glimpses of her suburban upbringing reveal a mother miserably yet willingly shackled to convention. When Bridget asks Helen why she married the monstrous husband she left seven years later, she’s told: ‘It was just what you did.’ Any questions that fall beyond Helen’s conversational safe zone are stonewalled.
At weekends, Bridget and her sister Michelle endure paternal access visits, scenes of laugh-out-loud tortuousness. Their father inhabits a fantasy world spun around his own exceptionalism. His raison d’être is ‘getting one over’ on others, schadenfreude his meat and drink. If Bridget reads a book, it will be snatched and ridiculed. All in his presence are hostage to the relentless clowning that sustains his chosen role of ‘beloved outlaw’.
In adulthood, Bridget’s interactions with her mother — wearing her ‘expectant look’ of ‘mulish innocence’ — are exercises in frustration of another kind, like putting pennies in a recalcitrant slot machine. Their lunches at the ‘groovy Troub’ (Troubadour) in Earl’s Court become an annual trial. Helen is a woman who gives no advice, only mantras; who cannot say how she is, only what she’s done. She is endlessly hopeful and endlessly disappointed by life: the disastrous second marriage; the dutiful ‘social whirl’; the aggrieved sense of doing all the ‘right things’ to no avail. Bridget invents personal disasters to entertain her, underplays her own happiness to avoid upsetting a mother who feels perpetually excluded.