My Phantoms By Gwendoline Riley – A Review

Publisher: Granta

Publication Date: 1st April 2021

I read First Love by Gwendoline Riley a few years back, right at the start of my book blogging days. When I saw that she had a new book coming out I jumped at the chance to review it.

I did a quick scan of the blurb and what I got from that was not what the book was at all! But in a brilliant way.

My Phantoms tells the story of Bridget, a woman in her 40’s originally from the north but living in London with her partner John. Bridget is essentially recounting for us some salient points of interest in her childhood with her sister Michelle, their mother Helen (known as Hen) and their father. In fact we come to the story after the divorce of Hen and Bridget’s father and start from a point of Bridget recounting the awkward and uncomfortable weekend visits with her father.

The section involving her father is quite short but brilliantly written and if I’m honest I would have liked to have found out a bit more about him. He’s a strange character but also he has qualities of many a northern Dad. He makes cringey ‘Dad’ jokes and fools around in public to make his two young daughters embarrassed. The girls for the most part stay quiet and don’t really react to his ‘acting the goat’. However, there are times where the good natured ribbing becomes spiked with small acts of almost cruelty, where the humiliation of the girls become the main aim.

‘That outlaws camp was what Michelle and I were bundled into when we got into his car. A rough-and-tumble territory where saying hello was a discardable courtesy, for a start. Instead our father would open with ‘Lock!’ even as we were pulling on our seat belts. If the weather looked cold, he might say ‘Jumper!’, meaning we were to show him that we were wearing one, and if we weren’t, by barking the word again – ‘Jumper!’ – he communicated that we were to go back in to the house and get one. ‘Haircut!’ meant one of us had had a haircut, and would be followed up, as we waited to turn out of our cul-de-sac, with, ‘Did they catch whoever did that? And, ‘Hey? Deaf lugs. Did they catch them?’….’

The majority of the rest of the book focusses on Bridget’s relationship with her Mother Helen. most of this is told from Bridget’s adult perspective. The two of them fall out of contact for a few years and we’re never really told why. Their relationship is strained and is reduced at one point to an annual birthday visit from Hen to London during which the two women meet for a meal and a drinks. These meals are awkward and Bridget veers from desperately trying to keep her mother engaged in conversation to becoming weary of the treading on eggshells and almost goading her mother into arguments.

The dialogue between the two characters in these scenes is just perfectly true to life and utterly toe-curlingly awkward. Bridget tries to wring dry any subject she can think of to make conversation with her mother without inadvertently upsetting her. Hen is an inscrutable character but it is clear that she doesn’t like to be left out. She joins all manner of clubs and groups and is always on the go. She becomes subdued and sulky almost when Bridget recounts anything positive that is happening in her life.

‘Conversely, 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. ‘You’ve just told me about all sorts of festive drinks dos’ I said. ‘This was just like them’. She wasn’t convinced though. When I didn’t tell her enough about it, she said, ‘oh tell me. Oh let me live vicariously, Bridge!‘. ‘There’s nothing else to tell!’ I said, and I searched my memory for a detail I could share. ‘I got stuck with a really boring woman for about ten minutes’, I said. ‘Oh no!’ my mother said. ‘So typical,’ I said, ‘in a room full of interesting people.’ That was a slip up. I knew it as soon as I’d said it. ‘Mmm,’ she said bravely. I tried to get her back: ‘The dreadful thing is, I think she felt she’d got stuck with me too! But neither of us had the wherewithal to break it off.’ ‘Aargh!’ Said my mother. And encouraged, I went on, ‘I think it’s worse when you feel you’re the boring one!’ I said. But there again, that was wrong: I’d given the impression now of such a party-rich life that I could make generalisations. ‘Mmm’, she said, again. And then, again, she smiled bravely and looked at me expectantly. What to say? What else was there?…’

The tension in these scenes is palpable and what I found so fascinating was the fact that I didn’t really know who to side with between mother and daughter. I was fully expecting at the start of the book to find a poor downtrodden woman who has been so ground down in life by her overbearing and cruel mother. This is absolutely not how it turned out and my preconceived ideas were very incorrect!

I loved this book despite its low level tension throughout. It’s easy to draw parallels with real life relationships and identify small personality traits within the characters that I could see in myself or my family relationships.

Gwendoline Riley’s writing is sharp and focussed and I’ve now enjoyed both of the books I’ve read of hers, which of course means I now need to visit her back catalogue.

Thank you so much to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

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