“She’s clearly frightened of engaging. That’s a sad thing. A sad and defensive thing. Here’s a better way to put it, she was in an a priori reality.” This is how a character defines Bridget’s mother, Helen, in My Phantoms.
First Love, Gwendoline Riley’s critically acclaimed previous novel, was nominated for both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Goldsmiths Prize. Both that and My Phantoms have starkly different premises, but are strikingly similar in terms of the narrative choices as they delve into fraught, dysfunctional familial relationships narrated solely from the protagonist’s point of view, giving us a blinkered perspective of their dynamics.
The storyline in the latest novel follows the trajectory of Helen and Bridget’s evolving mother-daughter relationship from childhood to adulthood. Bridget’s childhood involved Helen maintaining her reticence and refusing any attempt by Bridget to get to know her better. Helen’s demeanour was characterised by “an antipathy to her circumstances”. She would offhandedly remark how most of the things she did in her life, like her job or living in the suburbs, were “not her” but something she did only because that was what was considered normal.
Helen is an evasive character who does not respond well to curiosity or being pressed to divulge details about herself. She appears to be “braced against an interrogation” wherever she goes, perceiving even a greeting from a neighbour as a threat or an affront. She treats her self-imposed isolation as a prerequisite to cast herself in the mould of “the fairytale misfit”.
Bridget’s mother and father separated when she was only two, and the first part of the novel is her reflection on her childhood and elaborate character portraits of her parents, which are brutal and scathing. Bridget seems to view both as interesting specimens, devoid of any trace of familial sentimentality.
Her mother is characterised as having “a mulish innocence” and the personality of a wallflower. In contrast, the father is the epitome of flamboyance. He views himself as a “beloved outlaw” who requires the audience of Bridget and her sister as passive spectators – “a living witness was required for the attitudes of this self-pollinating entity”. His larger-than-life personality had an inhibiting effect on the sisters, who had to shrink themselves during their sporadic visits to make space for his tawdry theatrics.
Riley has a beautiful way of cataloguing memories and earmarking unpleasant experiences with a visually arresting turn of phrase. Bridget describes Helen's tendency to not oblige but just passively listen to her as "I'd see my pleas sported as trinkets". She depicts her father as "an energised bother" whose company was something she "weathered".
My Phantoms juxtaposes Bridget’s recollections of her mother’s life during Bridget’s childhood with her present-day efforts to simultaneously maintain her relationship with her while also keeping her at arm’s length.Their relationship dynamics switch up in the latter half of the book after Helen’s second failed marriage, following which she moves into a city-centre apartment in Manchester, hoping to meet her daughter more.
Bridget remains content with the sporadic exchanges she has with her mother, which are aptly described as “stubbed-toe, short-leash”. Eventually Bridget is compelled to mend her relationship with Helen after the latter is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamics are a popular theme in literary fiction; recent examples include Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar. However, both books feature seething resentment and reciprocated emotional damage that pervade the narrative. In My Phantoms, the mother and daughter are curiously apathetic and seem to be maintaining their relationship out of a sense of duty rather than genuine concern for each other’s wellbeing.
Bridget does not want her mother to meet her boyfriend John, despite the latter’s insistence, because she knows Helen places no value on the quality or substance of any encounter. But the same could be said about Bridget.
While the story is written from Bridget’s perspective, the narration is not inward-looking, and readers are left to figure out much about Bridget on their own because of the narrator’s aloofness and reluctance to reveal too much about herself. Bridget appears cold and detached, not just from her parents but even her sister, who is curiously absent from most of the story.
My Phantoms effectively captures the ennui of our times, and while the lack of a clear resolution might make for an unsatisfactory conclusion for some readers, it rounds up the raw ingenuity of this book well.