A few years ago, I was very impressed with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, a book that received accolades and featured on many prize lists. Hence, I was quite keen to read her latest offering My Phantoms especially after all the rave reviews it has been garnering.
Family can be so complicated. This certainly holds true in My Phantoms, a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.
Our narrator is Bridget Grant, who is now in her 40s, and lives in London with her partner John and their cat Puss. Through Bridget’s eyes, we gradually begin to see a fully formed picture of her narcissistic father Lee and her emotionally detached mother Helen – parents who have continued to haunt Bridget’s psyche.
The book begins with Bridget’s recollections of her childhood and those traumatic “access” visits with their father that she and her sister Michelle could not avoid. Since Helen Grant had divorced Lee, the girls were legally mandated to spend Sundays with their father, a prospect that filled them with dread.
Riley’s evocation of the father’s self-centred personality is brilliant – he’s a man Bridget did not really think of as a person but more as a phenomenon.
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.
While the bulk of the book dwells on Bridget’s musings on her mother, trying to fathom the motives and thinking behind her behaviour, Bridget states how she felt no such desire to quiz her father. Her reason – he simply wasn’t an enigma like her mother. In Bridget’s words – “His nature had to generate satisfaction for itself. That was it. Getting one over. Being an exceptional case. There was nothing else. With him the difficulty came in dealing with that relentless uniformity of purpose.”
That uniformity of purpose finds various outlets, but one particularly memorable one is when Lee makes all that fuss around Bridget reading Chekhov’s Five Plays where he goes on and on about how she’s into posh Russian books. There is one specific monologue of his that is pretty incredulous and weirdly funny and leaves young Bridget speechless…
“You do know there’s no point reading things in a translation,” he said.
“Because it’s not the original language,” he explained. “It could be anything.”
“Intelligent people learn the language if they’re really interested,” he said.
“What you’re reading could be anything,” he said, again.
But My Phantoms essentially revolves around Helen Grant, Bridget’s mother. It is never explicitly stated whether there were any specific incidents in her childhood that harboured feelings of resentment or fuelled the toxic relationship between Helen and Bridget. But from the outset it is clear that their exchanges have all the makings of a performance and not always genuine.
Helen Grant is portrayed as a woman insecure on many fronts and unable to really open up. She prefers conversations that follow a certain course for her to be in a comfort zone, otherwise she gets flustered and clams up. Helen is an independent woman though. Having held a job for most of her adult life (despite hating it), she lives on a good pension and has enough funds to have a flat she can call her own (first in Liverpool, then in Manchester) and live life on her own terms.
However, what she lacks is good company. With two divorces behind her, Helen has clearly been unlucky in love. On one hand she is extroverted, attending all possible openings, concerts, jazz festivals, book readings and even engaging in volunteer work, on the other hand she hardly has any real friends to speak of or a thriving social life.
Substantial sections of the book shine the spotlight on the stilted conversations between Helen and Bridget. Although they are not always in touch, Helen makes it a point to visit London on her birthday and spend an evening with her daughter. Their conversation is often fraught with silences and the pressure to conform to a script, leaving no room for genuine communication, warmth or even unburdening oneself.
For the most part I found myself sympathizing with Bridget. Being in a situation where she has to continuously rack her brains to get their conversations going can be exhausting and frustrating. For instance, when Bridget gifts Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels to Helen on her birthday, she does so with the hope that they have much to talk about when they meet next, based on her own rewarding experience of the discussions she has had with her friends on those books. But that gesture reaches a dead end when Helen confesses to being muddled with the primary characters’ names.
But Bridget has her faults too. Although from Bridget’s point of view, Helen is not the ideal mother, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and is prone to making cruel remarks and coming across as quite unsympathetic. For instance, she comments on how Helen’s had two awful husbands and should not be aiming to get married again. She is uncomfortable about introducing Helen to her partner John however much Helen insists. And when Helen is ill, it is her sister Michelle who does much of the heavy lifting and running around. Bridget also leaves no stone unturned in making Helen aware of the meaninglessness of her existence – how despite engaging in so many activities and social outings, she remains essentially empty. There is one poignant moment when Helen’s defences are down, and in a rare display of vulnerability it seems that she might finally confide and express her true feelings. Bridget certainly thinks so but realizes that she has no inkling of how to deal with it or help her mother.
And again I saw that I’d got it very wrong. That it was a mean trick, suddenly to be so rational and practical in the face of her distress. It was as if I’d delicately pulled on a pair of butler’s gloves. Or passed the whole thing on to a different department.
Bridget’s tirade against her parents for judging themselves in the light of what “other people” think and say also hits closer home. While these “other people” are more often than not nebulous beings, she uses it as a medium to explore one fundamental difference between her mother and father…
I wanted to say, What bloody people? But that would have been cruel, wouldn’t it? So she had me there.
It did strike me, though, that at least those spectral associates my father raised didn’t persecute him. They were a supporting cast: a wise counsel or a happy coterie, rushing in to fill coveted positions in his court. Leave it to my poor mother to have these awful tormenting busybodies as her imaginary fellows.
Obviously, the core theme of My Phantoms is the difficulties of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. There are many facets of Helen’s personality that Bridget finds trying and yet Helen remains an integral part of her life, Bridget cannot completely cut her off. But the novel is also fascinating for the many things left unsaid, giving the reader much to think about. Bridget is haunted by her mother’s unyielding persona, but does Michelle feel the same? We know that siblings growing up in the same environment can be affected by things differently. Is Michelle tormented by her parents’ personalities to the same degree as Bridget?
Gwendoline Riley has a way with words and language that is striking. For instance, here’s how she describes Lee Grant…
And so Lee Grant strode untroubled through his subjected realm, where he was, variously, the kindly king and the swashbuckling bandit, the seen-it-all sage and the rude clown, the tender-hearted swain and the blue-eyed boy, and on and on…Exceptional cases, every one.
And here’s another snippet when Helen announces her decision to travel the world…
In order to live, in order to be Hen Grant, she had to step out of a tangle of very mouldy old rope. She had to go forth, announcingly. Relentlessly and internationally.
Riley’s prose is biting and as sharp as a scalpel, but also suffused with tender moments. The primary characters are finely etched and the dialogues between them are superb, they feel very real. In My Phantoms, then, she explores the tricky terrain of fractured familial bonds and does so with much aplomb.