My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

Oh my, how I loved this novella (it just scrapes in under 200 pages). The story of Helen, ‘Hen’, as told my her youngest daughter Bridget, ‘Bridge’. It’s a toxic relationship for sure, but there is love there too – but it’s the way that Bridget tells it, with a strong streak of very dark humour that had me up, down, chuckling or shocked and on the verge of tears throughout.

First we need to get Bridget and MIchelle’s father out of the way. Once their parents separate, they have to endure the weekend visits, where their father would pick them up…

My father was of a piece with the rest. And his company was something to be weathered, that’s all. He had a claim on me – on us – which no one was disputing. Which, in fact, my mother, as was her way, seemed quite excited to uphold. So it was ‘Lock!’. ‘Seat belt!’. and then try to let the hours flow by. I’m not sure I even thought of him as a person, really. He was more just this – phenomenon. A gripper of shoulders. A pincher of upper arms. If I was wearing a hat, a snatcher of hats. If I was reading a book, a snatcher of books. Energized bother in short. And yes, legally mandated.

He was ‘energized bother’ as a child to his twin sister, Mary, too, who wrote to Bridge after he died, explaining she wouldn’t be at the funeral, as she didn’t ‘do family’ any more; something she strongly recommended; Bridget was already there.

This leaves the space for Riley to develop the caustic love-hate relationship between Bridge and her mother.

My mother left my father before I was two. I have no memories of my parents married. I would lay odds though, that, with him, she went in for her fair share of provoking. Proactive provoking, I mean. […]

She was mulish, when she wasn’t completely biddable, and each mode always at precisely the wrong time.

Paperback cover

Helen is such a complex character, a needy extrovert with the knack of unintentionally rubbing people up the wrong way. She has few friends except for Griff, a gay man who often acts as her faux-partner. Bridget has now got her relationship with Hen down to one visit a year, and keeps her away from her home with her partner John, but as her mother is ageing and becomes increasingly unwell, she begins to need more. Can Bridget overcome the negatives in their relationship to bring them together again?

I couldn’t possibly say more on what happens. Athough written with caustic wit, this story is all the more disturbing because parts of it will resonate with everyone; anyone who has gone through troubled periods with their parents or offspring, and particularly as single parents. There is tenderness to be found, it’s not all bleak and cutting, but it is darkly funny throughout. Riley’s skills at observation and dialogue are finely tuned and every word was well-placed, making it a pleasure to read.

This novella won’t be for everyone, but for those who can cope with the relationship described in these pages, I’d highly recommend this book.

Source: Own copy. Gwendoline Riley, My Phantoms (2021) Granta paperback, 199 pages.

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9 thoughts on “My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I really liked this book, but there was a coldness to it that I couldn’t quite relate to. Of course, it’s unfair to criticise a book for something it is not – but I was thinking that there are far more tumultuous mother-daughter relationships and more demanding mothers out there… I suppose it might be different in terms of family dynamics (and expectations) in families from Latin countries.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I felt it was very true to life, especially that coldness! I loved her writing and am keen to read more by her, I think I have her previous novella, First Love on the shelves.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was quite close to the bone! However, she has such a great turn of phrase, I relished the writing.

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