Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe the family in My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley. There’s no violence or abuse going on, just a devastating inability to communicate, a staggering lack of empathy, and some more or less genuine attempts at reaching out which, like two repelling magnets, always fail. If Bridget, our narrator, is to be believed, it’s all her mum Helen’s fault. But is she to be believed? If you’re interested in complex family relationships My Phantoms has lots to offer, some of it very funny; just don’t expect lovable heroes because there aren’t any.
Bridget, an academic in her 40s, lives in London with her therapist boyfriend John. Her mum Helen divorced her father long ago for reasons that quickly become obvious. Bridget’s description of her narcissistic, insecure, bullying dad had me howl with laughter. The overbearing, mature way Bridget and her sister Michelle deal with it makes you wonder who’s the grown-up in the room.
Helen is a complex mix of frustrated introvert who seeks company only to reject it. She is restlessly on the search for something to give her life meaning without quite knowing what. Nothing pleases her. She’s endlessly attending tours, talks, gallery openings without really getting anything out of it. At least this is Bridget’s take on it.
As the novel progresses there are hints of an alternative truth. Why doesn’t Bridget want Helen to meet her boyfriend? Why does she never go to visit her mum in Manchester? And when she does, why does she spend most of her time there in the local Caffe Nero?
My Phantoms portrays a mother-daughter relationship stripped down to the bare minimum of interaction, communication and compassion, perfectly mirrored by Riley’s sparse prose. Both devastating and, at times, darkly comical.
My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley is published by Granta, 199 pages.