I first came across Gwendoline Riley’s work via Andy Miller’s glowing recommendation on his podcast Backlisted, in which he praises My Phantoms, her latest novel, as “a page-turning discomfort read.” And it is uncomfortable. It’s also darkly funny and incisive. But perhaps the word that best describes it is cold. Over the course of the novel, Bridget, the narrator, coldly, almost clinically, conducts a sort of autopsy of her relationship with her mother, Helen or “Hen” for short. This coldness pervades the novel, the plot, tone, and point of view. Bridget’s uncompromising analyses drive the story rather than any hope for reconciliation between mother and daughter.
Bridget’s coldness is a consequence of painful and fruitless past attempts to enter her mother’s world. Here is a daughter straining to please her mother and either failing or, worse, succeeding because success, Bridget feels, means becoming as shallowly performative as her mother. Throughout the novel, Hen casts herself in the role as the only child and the “fairy-tale misfit” and the engaged and capable mother. In response, Bridget tries to play the part of the warm but not overly curious daughter. She makes up stories that will interest her mother, plies her with cocktails, and asks questions she knows the answer to, questions Hen feels are safe. Bridget characterizes these efforts to amuse her mother as “shoveling in the bright friendliness; the treats… Keep shoveling it in.” But no matter how much she shovels in, Bridget feels like she is “filling a cup that had a hole in it” and eventually tires of the charade and her own role in sustaining it: “I grew to dread those meetings. From which I would come home contrite.”
What is the source of Hen’s insatiable need, the lack driving these performances? Bridget speculates that Hen suffers from expectation: “Expectation was the point. She would have to stay that way: hopeful, eager, and absolutely unreceptive.” When Bridget thinks of her now, “that’s what I see, or feel, most of all. Her keyed-up look: fixed on something; fastened on something. A horrible persistence. A sort of mulish innocence.” Though this is a symptom more than a cause, Bridget fears becoming the object of that fixed and pathetic gaze, and she tries to reject it. But can any of us, no matter how clear-eyed, intelligent, and self-aware, ever understand and fully escape the roles we’re forced to play?
To protect herself, her authentic self, Bridget allows Hen into her life only for annual and superficial chats—though admittedly these are the only sorts of chats Bridget believes Hen capable of. She keeps Hen on the periphery of her life, characterizing her impromptu and clearly unwanted first visit to her flat as a “fearsome raid.” This protective distance manifests in the cold tone of the novel overall, a detachment as a defense mechanism, developed in response to Hen’s narcissism and to the dissonances between the roles mother and daughter play and the frustrated expectations of each.
The novel reads like a memoir of disconnection: a series of memories recounting Bridget’s strained relationship with her mother. Riley is too good a writer to offer readers a single, definitive psychological explanation of the rift between mother and daughter, though John, Bridget’s partner and a therapist, provides the clearest attempt at one after his first meeting with Hen:
[I]t became obvious she wasn’t going to engage with anything that was actually being said. She had a stance, she was sticking to that, and that precluded reacting to what was actually happening… There was an absolute refusal to do that. It was disorienting… When she appeared to react, these weren’t reactions at all, were they? But her performing what she thinks she is. Or what she had decided to be. So the performance was desperately committed but gratingly false.
John goes on to say that Hen was locked into an “a priori reality” and that Hen’s reality wouldn’t yield to another’s. Bridget spent many years trying to accommodate her mother’s reality. She also tried to confront her mother, doggedly asking Hen about her past, looking for answers in it despite Hen’s evasion. Bridget wants to see the real Hen behind the performance or to lure Hen into meeting Bridget outside her insular reality. Finally, Bridget resigned herself to keeping her at a distance. Thus, Hen remains opaque. We never fully access her reality; we’re just given snippets of performances Bridget recalls.
Is it possible to penetrate past who we appear to be, who we perform to be, to some substantial and sincere person behind it all? Perhaps Hen perceives Bridget’s aloofness as its own inaccessible reality, with Bridget’s need to make Hen something she’s not its own sort of oppressive, a priori reality. Bridget and Hen, bound together as mother and daughter yet utterly disjoined. By the end of the novel, I began to misanthropically wonder if all of our performances must have an element of the gratingly false, and that the best we can hope for from friends and family is sympathy and a willingness to overlook the falsity or tolerate it. I found Bridget’s intolerance, in this way, both frightening and admirable.
What are Bridget’s ultimate motivations throughout My Phantoms? She refuses to say, but Riley’s deft omissions encourage the reader to wonder. Does she wish to better understand her mother in order to build a connection with her? Doubtful. To better understand herself as a product of growing up Hen’s daughter? Perhaps. To exorcize said phantoms? (Is this the reason anyone writes?) Is such an exorcism possible or are we all trapped in our own a priori realities? These questions stay with the reader long after they’ve put down this cold and quietly harrowing novel.
By Gwendoline Riley
New York Review of Books
Published on September 13, 2022
Kent Kosack is a writer, editor, and educator based in Pittsburgh, PA. Kent served as the Director of the Educational Arm at Asymptote, a journal of world literature in translation, and is a guest editor providing feedback on submissions for the Masters Review. His work has been published in Tin House (Flash Fidelity), the Cincinnati Review, the Normal School, Hobart, and elsewhere. See more at: www.kentkosack.com