There was “nothing for him” in England.
“There were no ‘Homes for Heroes.’ Oh no. No ‘Homes for Heroes.’”
My grandmother said this indignantly. And if my mother was there, she used to shake her head and join in: “There was nothing, no. Nothing.”
This is the narrator, Bridget, at the beginning of Gwendoline Riley’s new novel, My Phantoms, recounting one of her grandmother’s favorite talking points. “They were talking about my grandfather,” Bridget explains, “who had worked in Venezuela after the war.” That’s where Bridget’s mother, Helen, was born in 1949—and although the family returned to England just a few years later, it’s also where as a toddler Helen
renamed herself, effectively, when her first attempts to pronounce that name produced instead a proud, high, “He’en!” My grandmother had thrilled to that, taking the fault as an audacity, which had naturally left her helpless. So then Helen was Hen. The resolute Hen. The remarkable Hen.
In this short scene, Riley establishes many of the novel’s preoccupations, as well as its tone of inadequately suppressed panic. Bridget’s grandmother and mother are not exactly having a conversation; rather, they are using the pretext of a conversation to settle into old, comfortable positions, with the grandmother taking the role of chief aggrieved party and Hen providing backup vocals. Hen, in turn, expects Bridget to step into position as an active audience member, providing cues when required and doing her bit to ensure that the performance runs smoothly. What’s being shared is not information but an opportunity to luxuriate in the feeling of being wronged, of having one’s perfectly reasonable expectations dashed.
My Phantoms is Riley’s sixth novel, and her best. A work of tightly compressed brilliance, it shares many elements with her previous books: a coolly observant narrator, characters who spend a lot of time in distressed contemplation of how their lives look to others, a preoccupation with self-deception and its corrosive effects, a lucidly expressed vision of a grim, stunted Englishness. Much of what makes it so extraordinary is present from its opening lines: Riley can create fully realized characters largely through snatches of speech, sketching out the contours of a dysfunctional relationship in an exchange that mostly consists of the word “nothing,” conducted in the presence of a narrator who is both audience member and participant, acutely aware of the demands of both roles but not always willing or able to fulfill them.
Riley’s previous novel, First Love (2017),* is a dissection of a difficult relationship, relayed by a narrator attempting to make sense of it. The relationship is that of a married couple, Neve and Edwyn, whose arguments are brutal and predictable. “Finding out what you already know. Repeatingly. That’s not sane, is it?” Neve asks.
For me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making, whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling, cautious creature. (Except it was.)
Neve’s ability to perceive all this at a dispassionate remove is not especially helpful—the same argument keeps happening anyway, and she cannot seem to get enough distance to leave, only to back further into a corner. Observing her retreat, Edwyn devises increasingly nasty ways to hasten it even as he clings to her hysterically. Neve keeps wondering if she has missed something—if there’s a secret she should have been let in on: “Was this what life was like, really, and everyone knew it but me?”
My Phantoms is also a dissection of a relationship, this time between mother and daughter. Hen—who divorced Bridget’s father, Lee, when Bridget and her older sister, Michelle, were small children—exists in a state of perpetually unmet expectation. A retired IT worker who lives alone in an apartment in Manchester after a second failed marriage, she is beset by the conviction that she has been unjustly cut off from the life she should be living. She would like to be contentedly busy, going to the theater with friends and enjoying the experience, reading a book and getting something out of it, coming home to a nice man with whom she can “have badinage” the way the characters do on the detective show Castle. But although she does all the things she believes will unlock the door to such a life, and keeps a vigilant record of what “normal” people do (italics Hen’s)—she repeatedly comes away with her sense of dissatisfaction intact, incapable of admitting either to herself or to her daughter that anything is the matter.
Hen’s desired life in many ways resembles her daughter’s. Bridget lives in London with her boyfriend of many years, has a healthy social life, and is studying for a Ph.D. But Bridget keeps much of this private from Hen, finding that “if I let slip about anything lucky, or nice, in my life, that could be tricky. Once, when I mentioned that I’d been to a Christmas party, she looked very hurt.” Any suggestion from Bridget that Hen is miserable is met with theatrical indignation:
Stop getting at me. Move on. A normal daughter would say Oh how interesting, Oh how brave….
At Wine Circle they were all saying Oh how brave, we could never do what you do.
Bridget describes “worrying at my mother’s psyche,” and she makes intermittent, sometimes valiant efforts to communicate with her, but she rarely succeeds in engaging Hen about anything other than “farcical situations”:
Even when I was being straightforward with my mother, acting in good faith, or at least better faith, my efforts seemed to run aground on that same shoal. I could distract her, but that seemed to be all I could do. She did not seem able to accrue any fellowship or absorb any solace. I was filling a cup that had a hole in it, really.
When Bridget was a child, we learn, she retreated into books. Her father, Lee—a loud, blustery, magnificently terrible comic creation who died when she was twenty-six—related to his daughters by bullying them during their legally mandated visits, subjecting them to “his fine musing on his exceptional self” in the form of countless implausible-sounding stories about the effects of his roguish charm. Bridget knows that none of this is true, but she learns to sit through his monologues and do her best to play dead as he torments her. “I’m not sure I even thought of him as a person, really,” Bridget says.
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.
Much of the first section of the novel is about this relationship between father and daughters, such as it is. Hen is there, but somehow off to one side, relatively content to obey the stage directions that accompany the different parts she plays: first as a placating wife to a domineering husband, then as an obedient daughter to a father who “required” her to choose between him and Lee, and then as a single mother to two small girls. It’s when these directions are no longer available to her that she becomes undone, and the extent of her desperation reveals itself.
Bridget’s response is to get as far away from her family as possible. For ten years after university, she has only brief, brittle contact with Hen: “I never visited…. We spoke now and then. I called her when I remembered.” The gradual, often reluctant modifications Bridget makes to the barriers she put in place between herself and her mother are what give the plot its shape. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that they move toward a greater understanding, but their relationship does evolve, and one of the great achievements of My Phantoms is the way it shows how people can become closer even when they remain utterly baffled by each other.
When Hen turns sixty, she initiates a mother-daughter birthday tradition, coming down to London from Manchester for dinner with Bridget, as “normal” people do. Every dinner brings with it a fresh opportunity for Hen’s unarticulated expectations to be dashed. With varying degrees of effort, Bridget attempts to fend off the inevitable. She knows that the best approach is to feed Hen her lines and present a version of herself that will not upset or offend her mother:
When she remembered her cue and asked me her own set of questions I was friendly, I hope, but I didn’t volunteer too much. I didn’t, as a rule, talk to her about anything that mattered to me. Why upset her by talking about things she couldn’t understand or enjoy?
However, Bridget is not always willing to rise to the occasion. There is an almost unbearable scene in a vegan restaurant, to which Bridget insists on hauling Hen one year out of a wish, perhaps, to insist that things are other than what they are. She is braced for it to go badly, which only hastens the process along. They both order the detox salad and Bridget watches, irritated to the point of dizziness, as Hen makes a great performance out of eating it, as she was bound to do:
She didn’t put her knife and fork down, though…. Instead she made a show of stopping to wipe her forehead. Then she said, “Once more unto the breach!”
She stuck her fork into the heap again, bit down on another untidy mouthful and chewed it.
“Mum, let’s stop!” I said, with really tremendous good humour and warmth now, and amusement at her little mime.
Another year, Bridget suggests that Hen change her birthday, “like the Queen,” so that they don’t have to keep coming out in the February cold: “‘I feel an extra resentment,’ I went on, swiping again at my wet hands and face, ‘when I have to come out in the dark and the cold.’” These bursts of antagonism are rare, though, and Bridget tends to regret them. Usually she plays along, asking questions that encourage anecdotes in which an unrecognizably charming, doughty Hen emerges: “That scrabble for combustible material,” Bridget thinks. “My instinct was that it was the best thing to do; that it kept something else at bay.”
Diagnosing a problem is not the same thing as fixing it, and describing the central issues in Hen and Bridget’s relationship is not the same thing as capturing My Phantoms’s intense force. How is it that Hen is so boring, yet also absolutely riveting, that we can hardly wait for Bridget to tell us whatever inane thing Hen says next? As I read there were moments when I felt as though I was seeing a crisp black-and-white photograph slide abruptly into horribly vivid color out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to face it directly it was in black and white again, with measured tones and careful consideration of the light.
Riley’s language is economical, her style cool, her humor ironic—yet the emotional pitch of the work as a whole is almost intolerably high, so that Bridget’s description of her mother’s eventual visit to her flat in London registers as both an account of a dull, strange evening and a description of a chasm opening up beneath their feet to reveal inconsolable sadness. Riley is in her early forties, and it’s difficult to think of a similar writer among her contemporaries, or even from an earlier generation. She is sometimes compared to Jean Rhys, but she reminds me more of Harold Pinter, both in her remarkable dialogue and in her use of cliché and circumscribed metaphor to describe the inner lives of her characters. When Hen talks about how she wants her life to be, for instance, the best she can come up with is that it should look a bit like Friends, or like the wall art in a local coffee chain:
I suppose it had just lodged in her mind that one should have [friends]; that it was “what people did.” Friendship featured on television, in adverts; groups of laughing women loomed over one in those blown-up photographs on the walls of Caffè Nero.
Comparisons are useful, but they don’t necessarily account for the power of My Phantoms, the source of which I spent a long time trying to discern. At times I caught myself reading the book as if it were a detective novel, paging backward and forward in an effort to understand how exactly Riley managed to insert such a feral, panicked heartbeat into a work of such impeccable control. I returned to the book over and over again, underlining every second sentence, littering the spaces between paragraphs with question marks, periodically holding it as far away from my face as I could in case I might see something I’d missed earlier.
Throughout the novel Bridget does something similar. She goes back over the same territory again and again, asking the same questions and ending up with inconclusive or upsetting answers. She says of Hen, “I used to ask her a lot about old boyfriends, and her London life. These questions were all one question, I think: why my father? Why did she marry him?” Because that is what people did, or because Hen was scared, or because something very bad happened that no one wants to talk about? “If you ask you don’t get,” Hen told her young daughters when they were inquisitive. Another of her formulaic responses was “Life’s not fair. Life’s not fair, is it?”
Toward the end of the novel Hen is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and Bridget wonders how much this accounts for her mother’s increasingly weird behavior. Some time before, Bridget had visited Hen at her flat in Manchester to help her recover from knee surgery. During the visit Hen insists on turning up the television volume as high as it will go while Bridget tries to take shelter in a book. After Hen’s tumor diagnosis, her one apparent friend, a gay man named Griff, tells Bridget that Hen did the same thing with the car radio the last time he saw her, repeatedly turning the volume up to its maximum:
“And that wasn’t like Hen.”
“No,” I said. Although, of course, it was quite like her, wasn’t it? I remembered the television getting louder in the wake of my looking in on her when I was small.
Throughout, Bridget attempts a vantage point from which she can survey her relationship with her parents with sufficient detachment. At times she pulls it off, as when accounting for why their marriage failed. She can see exactly what her father was like, and sometimes she can even be funny about him, as when recounting one of the most mortifying pieces of advice he ever gave her and her sister, delivered during a trip to the grocery store: “What you need to do,” he told them, after spotting a young woman wearing a miniskirt nearby,
is look when they’ve been to the toilet. I noticed this when miniskirts were first fashionable. You can see it if they’ve been sitting on a wicker chair as well…or a garden chair, but when they’ve been to the toilet you can see the shape of the toilet seat!
Bridget can be funny about her father because she can see him clearly, and also because she isn’t interested in him, and he’s dead. Occasionally she can be funny about Hen too, as when describing her mother’s passion for anecdotes about other people’s misfortune (“She was even more cheerful later on that night when she told me how a woman in her aquarobics class had died”). But the jokes quickly stop being amusing, in part because Bridget does care about her mother, who is very much alive. Bridget is brutal with herself when she remembers the barbed comments she used to make about her mother’s disastrous marriages:
“My mother’s had two terrible husbands, yes. She’s on the lookout for a third.”
I must have been rather pleased with that. I must have thought that rather sophisticated. I would keep wheeling it out.
Bridget is so good at pinpointing Hen’s blind spots and self-delusions that it takes a while for the reader to recognize that Bridget herself suffers from a similar affliction—not nearly as badly, but the difference is of degree rather than kind. Like her mother, Bridget doesn’t have too firm a grasp of how she comes across, and she is stoutly committed to the avoidance of certain realities. She recalls her mother’s embarrassing behavior with forensic detail while insisting unconvincingly that these encounters do not matter to her, that she is able to brush them off and return to her real life—but of course they matter, and of course she will be freshly upset by each bizarre dinner or discombobulating exchange. She delineates every reason Hen cannot make or keep friends while choosing not to account for her own nonexistent relationship with Michelle, whom she hears about mostly through her mother.
There are a few moments in the novel when Hen admits that she is unhappy or reveals something in conversation that might actually help her daughter understand her better. During Bridget’s visit to Hen’s flat, she tells Bridget that there are things she has never told anyone about what Lee made her do when they were a couple. Instead of asking Hen what she means, Bridget starts making a list of therapists: “I never learned anything more about the ‘things he made me do.’ What restraint I’d shown in not pursuing that. What sly restraint.” In shying from this partial revelation, she suddenly resembles her mother, who backs away from the truth whenever she can. Perhaps Bridget is too scared of what she might learn, although admitting to being scared is not something either of them really knows how to do.
Early in the novel, Bridget recalls a letter she got from Lee’s twin sister, Mary, after his death:
I was very shocked to hear about your dad. I hadn’t seen him in a long time but he was my brother and it was a shock. I won’t be at the funeral as I don’t do “family” these days (not for eight years this Christmas, which I recommend!) but I shall think of you both.
This half-hearted stab at breeziness cannot be sustained for long, however. When Bridget writes back saying that she won’t be at the funeral either—and that she hasn’t seen her dad in ages and has no idea whether her sister will be attending—Mary responds with a vivid bitterness that threatens to undermine her assertion about not doing family:
I know it’s traditional to share memories at these times so how’s this. As Lee was the boy (I was the oldest as you know) he was given the house key when our mum (your Nana) started work, and after school he used to run home, to get in the house and lock me out. So I had to do my homework on the step (or walk to our Granny Walsh’s if it was raining or cold). Went on for years. Says it all and he didn’t change. Best wishes to you.
Like Bridget, Mary is not completely successful in putting distance between herself and her memories. Despite her assertion she still does family, because family is what people do. She is still her brother’s sister, her mother’s daughter. She is still the oldest, but even in death Lee is still the boy, and that matters just as much as it did when they were children. Would it be possible to see that story differently, perhaps as the irritating behavior of a naughty child, rather than raking over it for clues about the dreadful adult he later became? Of course it would. Wouldn’t it be easier to just let the story go? Maybe yes. Is that going to happen for anyone? Unlikely.
In spite of what she tells her aunt, Bridget does go to her father’s funeral. We learn this near the end of the novel when Hen brings it up as leverage in her increasingly desperate campaign to be introduced to Bridget’s boyfriend: “It’s normal for a mother to meet her daughter’s boyfriend. It’s normal.” Why were all these other people allowed to meet him when she is not? Bridget’s private explanations for why she has not introduced them are complicated and painful. She eventually relents and the evening is a disaster. But having your mother over for dinner and attending your father’s funeral are, after all, the kinds of things that “normal” people do.