Monday 5 July 2021

Guest review by Jane Feaver: MY PHANTOMS by Gwendoline Riley


"Riley’s pen is a scalpel."

Jane Feaver is a novelist and short-story writer. Her latest novel, Crazy, is published by Corsair.

Gwendoline Riley’s last novel First Love depicted the toxic dynamics of a marriage in merciless, unflinching detail. It won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for multiple other prizes. My Phantoms takes a similarly claustrophobic focus, this time one that atomizes the relations between a daughter, Bridget, and her mother, Hen.  Riley’s pen is a scalpel. In many ways she is, I think, a writer’s writer, the pleasures to be had are moment by moment, sentence by sentence in a high-wire act that is at times breath-taking in its control and audacity, and not for the faint-hearted. Hers, or rather her narrator, Bridget’s, is an iciness that burns as her attention is trained on her parents’ failed marriage, and then on each parent in turn, with whom, in their different ways, she is shown to be unremittingly at odds.  

No one mines disappointment, unhappiness and essential loneliness better than Riley. She is scabrously funny, skewering the kinds of banal lacunae in familial relations that are at once over-familiar and yet frustratingly opaque. No detail is superfluous – whether the grey leather sofa and matching swivel armchair that come with Hen’s soulless flat, or the drab clothes she wears: ‘the black linen trousers with a drawstring waist…bobbled sports socks, moccasin slippers’, observations that tell us as much about Hen as they do about her daughter’s antipathy. Riley’s ear for dialogue is razor sharp. ‘Tough titty’ is a characteristic phrase from Hen, the grimness of having to make do, of expecting disappointment. Although we are enlisted by the confiding ‘I’ of the narrator to take Bridget’s point of view and to believe that it is Hen we are trying to puzzle out, in the end we are far more unsettled by the implications of that narrative voice, what it tells us about the damage of such a legacy.

My Phantoms is published by Granta.

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