Review: A British cult favorite crosses over with a blistering novel about an inscrutable mum
On the Shelf
By Gwendoline Riley
NYRB: 208 pages, $17
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Were it not for our culture’s obsession with youth and beauty, as well as publishing’s perpetual fascination with the wunderkind, I would have thought “My Phantoms,” the latest novel by English writer Gwendoline Riley, was written by a much older person. But Riley is 43, and “My Phantoms” is her seventh novel. Her first, “Cold Water,” was published when she was 23. Despite being well-known in the U.K., she reads more like a discovery here in the States, where this week New York Review Books brings out not only “My Phantoms” but also the novel that precedes it, “First Love.”
“My Phantoms” does focus on aging. It deals, in fact, with the unsaid, perhaps the unsayable. It plumbs the depths of the most terrifying realization of adulthood — not that our parents will die but that they will die without us having known them at all.
The novel is eerily contiguous with a book I recently reviewed for The Times, Lynne Tillman’s “Mothercare.” In her chronicle of caring for her mother, a person “she did not love,” Tillman wonders if there will be some great revelation at the end, or at least some kind of explanation of why she and her mother never really connected. But — just as in Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death,” a likely influence on both these books — no such explanation comes. There are no winged angels, no heralding of trumpets, no “easy” answers. In fact, no answers at all.
E.M. Forster famously wrote “Only connect!” in his novel “Howards End.” “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” After reading “My Phantoms,” the reader is reminded that Forster’s line was not a promise, merely strongly worded advice.
In “Mothercare,” the novelist Lynne Tillman writes candidly of the 11 years “stolen” in caring for her mother — and what she learned along the way.
The fragments we live in are what make up Riley’s novel. Bridget is an independent woman in her 40s when she begins to tell us the story of her mother, Helen, or “Hen,” an emotional sphinx to her daughter. Hen lives in an apartment she loathes; she chokes on an inedible salad at a vegan restaurant while reassuring her daughter that it’s fine; she can’t make sense of all the characters in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. And yet she perseveres: She cleans her plate, she reads the book anyway.
“I don’t understand your life,” Bridget tells her. Hen seems capable only of complaining, and when Bridget suggests she take action, change her life, she’s met with “wounded shock.”
Riley is a master of dialogue, and favors it over the guideposts of narrative interiority. To an American reader that can be a bit of a challenge, given the intensity of Bridget and Helen’s Britishness. But even through the transatlantic fog, Riley captures what it’s like to prod at a colossally reticent emotional being like Hen.
There are glimmers of hope. When Hen smashes her knee and Bridget goes to help, her deceased father suddenly comes up. “The things he made me do,” Hen says. But that’s it. “I never learned anything more about the ‘things he made me do,’” Bridget tells us. “What restraint I’d shown in not pursuing that. What sly restraint.”
Bridget concludes that Hen is simply not capable of a genuine emotional interaction. Of connecting. In response to Hen’s questioning why she can’t meet Bridget’s boyfriend, the daughter pokes the bear: “‘Do you want me to tell you why, Mum?’ I said. ‘Why I have to keep things separate?’” Hen doesn’t answer. “‘How many sentences do you think you could take on that subject? Three? Four? One? Could you consider and acknowledge one sentence?’”
This is as close as we come to any kind of genuine feeling between mother and daughter. But Hen says nothing. “Her mouth was set.”
“My Phantoms” feels slight at first. But from the beginning, when we meet Bridget’s dead father in flashback, there is something very sinister under the surface of all the hmms and it’s fines and neverminds, the little sighs and moments of shaking off, the exhaustion of ramming one’s head against the iron will of a person living in complete denial, as if they were already dead. Riley has stunning control of her intent and of the thrilling tools she possesses as a writer. This is the kind of novel that haunts. Its ending clings like a malingering cough.
As the novel goes on, it becomes very obvious that Riley is dealing with that weighty subject of how to be present in our own lives. Why is Hen’s failure to connect so utterly terrifying? Because, perhaps, her plight is a warning. There are two definitions for the noun “phantom.” The first is: a ghost. The second is: a figment of the imagination. Hen is no specter, and Riley’s portrait of her is painfully real. She is something more horrifying; in her role as a mother, Hen is only a figment of Bridget’s imagination.
Ferri’s most recent book is “Silent Cities: New York.”
“Mothers, Fathers, and Others” collects essays on maternal bonds, art and analysis, cancer and conception and more from the polymath novelist.
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