Gwendoline Riley’s short, scalpel-sharp novels may not be getting longer, but they are getting heavier. It must be the weight of expectation: her last novel, First Love, won a whole cabinet of awards; and over the past few weeks her latest, My Phantoms, has appeared on countless best-novels-of-the-year lists. But will it appear on mine?
That it has so little plot to outline immediately endears it to me; likewise that it has so few characters to introduce. The only ones I really need to tell you about are our narrator, Bridget, and her mother, Helen (a.k.a. ‘Hen’); it is their fractious relationship that is under the microscope here. Not that a microscope seems necessary at first: from Bridget’s account of her childhood in the novel’s early chapters, it is obvious where the fault lies – with Hen.
My mother loved rules. She loved rules and codes and fixed expectations. […] In conversation – or attempted conversation – her sights seemed set on a similar prize. She enjoyed answering questions when she felt that 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.
Stray off script, however, and “my mother quickly got upset. She used to clam up, as if she’d detected she was being duped, or being lured into a trap.” I like how this sentence clams up, too, its three clauses each ending with that clipped, stressed ‘p’ sound that makes elaboration impossible. Riley doesn’t waste words.
The same is true of Bridget herself, who barely records a line of dialogue in the novel’s first fifty pages. Whether this denotes actual silence or not, the result is the same: her parents end up talking to themselves. This is most damning (and hilarious) in the chapters with Bridget’s estranged father, who is possibly even worse than his ex-wife. Take this soliloquy on the subject of Chekhov:
‘You do know there’s no point reading things in 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.
I didn’t have much to say to this.
Riley is subverting our expectations of page layout here; exploiting our preconception that a new line signifies a new speaker to emphasise just how overbearing and destructive this man really is. It is bold, adventurous writing, though I do take exception – in this passage and throughout the novel – to Riley’s overuse of italics (presented here, confusingly, in roman). Good writing shouldn’t need them – should convey stress and emphasis purely through syntax – and in fact Riley’s doesn’t need them most of the time. I would hear the sneer in “point” without the slant.
The real magic of My Phantoms, though, is in the way it plays with our sympathies. These change so gradually, so subtly, that I would be hard pressed to put page numbers to it; but I suppose it starts when Bridget leaves home (which is Liverpool) and moves to London. From this distance, Bridget’s interactions with her mother are reduced to “stubbed-toe, short-leash exchanges” on the phone and an annual dinner in celebration of Hen’s birthday – distance enough for her to develop her own personality, speak in direct speech and dare to challenge her mother. Here is the first microaggression I noticed:
Once, having laboured through an exhaust-flavoured squall, I stood wet-legged by our booth, easing off my half-sodden coat, and said,
‘Why don’t you move your birthday? Like the Queen. You could come down when it’s less freezing cold.’
‘Oh. No,’ my mother said, ‘my birthday’s today.’
Again, I am impressed by the density of the writing in this passage; the way those stodgy compounds make that first sentence as laborious to read as it was for Bridget to walk through the rain; but also how much work that full stop is doing after “Oh”. Usually, “Oh” and “No” exist together in their own little sense unit (‘Oh no!’), but here they are separated. There’s something ‘off’ about that, I think; something ‘off’ about Hen.
What that thing is Riley doesn’t dignify with a medical diagnosis. Indeed, what’s wrong with Hen may not even have a name beyond loneliness, maladjustment and frustration. The point is that Bridget doesn’t care enough to make enquiries. She has her job, which we don’t learn anything about; she has her boyfriend John, who we don’t learn anything about; and she’ll be damned if she’s going to share any of it with her ailing, isolated mother. You’d think she might at least share these things with us, though – we who took her side during all those family arguments; we who saw things from her point of view. It’s almost as if we can’t rely on her. It’s almost as if she’s… an unreliable narrator.
This is confirmed by Bridget’s dealings with her sister, Michelle. (Yes, she has a sister!) We meet Michelle in the novel’s early chapters, when Bridget is reluctantly yoked to her family, but after that she almost completely disappears until, late on, Bridget checks her phone and finds a missed call from her. “That was a jolt, to see that name, and my first thought – and the explanation I preferred – was that she must have called me by mistake.” We don’t learn any more about the relationship than this – and I’m glad. Silence is so much more intriguing than exposition – and Riley knows just when to keep shtum. The genius is in the gaps.
My Phantoms is published by Granta and is available here.