‘My Phantoms’ by Gwendoline Riley – No Sentimentality

 

‘My Phantoms’ by Gwendoline Riley   (2022) – 199 pages

 

‘My Phantoms’ is a daughter’s portrait of her mother, a mother she cannot love or even like very much.

Even as a young daughter, Bridget was embarrassed by her mother Helen (nicknamed Hen, which is probably appropriate). Hen has had two failed marriages to two totally unsuitable men and is desperate in her yearning for a third. Instead she has a gay male friend Griff who hangs around her.

They were each other’s closest friends, but my mother often didn’t much like Griff. She was grateful for him sometimes. Sometimes, especially these last few years, she had such a sullen look when I asked about him, as if it were just one more humiliation for him to be what she got.”

The daughter Bridget is severely critical of both her father and her mother. When Hen brings her daughter to meet her new boyfriend, the daughter reflects,

And I remember thinking, how curious that she couldn’t tell the difference between that and this. Between wit and coarseness, sensitivity and boorishness. These are different things, didn’t she know? Opposite things.”

So the daughter Bridget figured out right away that her mother’s second marriage was going to be a terrible failure too.

When Bridget grows up, Bridget wants to keep her needy mother as far away from herself as possible. She will only allow her mother to have dinner with her once a year in a restaurant. Why doesn’t Bridget invite her mother to her apartment so her mother could meet her boyfriend? Bridget’s sister Michelle is not that crazy about Hen either, but does help her out occasionally.

Hen is a desperate, sad ridiculous old woman. But the real story is daughter Bridget. Why has Bridget shut her mother out of her life so nearly completely?

It’s so much easier to deal with our parents maintaining a comfortable dishonest sentimentality than to deal with them as real, frequently annoying, people.

I found this unsentimental approach to family life entirely refreshing. The author Gwendoline Riley has a gift for getting at the root of her characters’ personalities and for noting the subtle differences between people that might cause them not to get along with each other. Mother love is not an automatic thing.

If you are looking for a novel that has a hard realistic edge to it, ‘My Phantoms’ might be the one for you.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

 

 

13 responses to this post.

  1. Hmmm, I dunno, novels where one character is all bad don’t seem very realistic to me.
    OK, there are monsters, but they are rare. Most people are a mixture of good and bad bits. So even as I read your review I was wondering, well, why was the mother like that? Doesn’t she have any redeeming features?
    So, as you hint… is the real problem here that Bridget is a hard, judgemental, unforgiving sort of person who hasn’t grown up enough to learn that parents are people too and they have faults?
    Or to put it another way… shutting toxic people out of your life is a good idea, but there have to be sound reasons for this, otherwise it’s just immaturity about one’s expectations about relationships.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      The mother Hen’s life situation is quite pitiful and cloying, but the daughter Bridget’s life situation is no great shakes either. I wouldn’t say the mother is toxic or cruel, just very needy and annoying. I suppose some daughters and sons move to other cities to avoid seeing their parents too much. It does seem unusual for a daughter living in the same city as her mother limiting their meetings to only one night each year.

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  2. Tony, I admired this one, too. The style a bit too edgy for me, so I wasn’t eager to rush out and find her other books. But what an excellent writer!

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  3. Hi Tony! Riley’s an interesting writer & this one’s been on my TBR for at least a year. Did you see the New Yorker’sFebruary article on Riley/Phantoms? It’s a very interesting piece that opens with a brief discussion on a Helen Garner essay in which Garner gives an honest appraisal of her relationship with her mother. I’m in between books right now, so I may actually get to Phantoms in the next month or so.

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    • Hi Janakay,
      I do have a New Yorker subscription, but somehow I must have missed this article, because I don’t recall reading anything about Helen Garner lately. I found out about ‘My Phantoms’ via a very positive review in the London Times Literary Supplement which I also subscribe to.
      It seems like there used to be more novels that were edgy, and I miss them.

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      • I, too, like edge in my novels! Perhaps not ALL the time, but certainly as part of my overall reading experience. The New Yorker article (which was very good BTW) is called “Daughters Outgrow Their Parents In Two Unsparing Novels;” it was published the Feb 13 or Feb 20, 2023 print edition. It focuses on Riley but begins its discussion with a paragraph from one of Gardner’s essays about her family.

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  4. I loved this. I think Riley is fantastic and the last couple of pages of this book were stunning. I was surprised it didn’t get more awards attention.

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