Gwendoline Riley’s novel My Phantoms is not so much a sad novel as it is an unhappy one—an unhappy novel about an unhappy family. Some joker once suggested that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but the unhappiness of the unhappy family evoked in My Phantoms will feel familiar to anyone who grew up with a narcissistic or depressed, passive-aggressive parent.
Our unhappy family are the Grants: mom Helen (“Hen”), father Lee, and sisters Michelle and Bridget (“Bridge”). Bridge is our narrator and her foil is mother Hen. In some ways, My Phantoms amounts to an oblique biography Hen, one patched together through estrangement and emotional distance. Bridge does not let her mother into her life: she refuses to introduce Hen to her boyfriends and will not let her into her home. She meets Hen once yearly for a dreary birthday dinner filled with passive-aggressive banter.
Late in the novel, Bridge finally acquiesces to spend a few days with Hen, caring for her after a surgery, and the pair almost—almost—come to a communication breakthrough. Hen, an extrovert with two failed marriages and only one close friend (whom she does not like), repeats her mantra: It was just what you did. The It in that sentence stands in for a proscribed life: getting married when you were a certain age, moving to the suburbs, abandoning your dreams. Having children, even if you didn’t want children.
As My Phantoms progresses, it becomes clear that, even if she never states it, Hen resents that Bridge has evaded the proscriptions of It was just what you did. Bridge has engineered a patchwork of phrases and prompts to make it through her “conversations” with Hen, but as her caretaker visit comes to a close, she actually opens up to her mother, suggesting that Hen starts therapy. Bridge continues:
Can I tell you what I think? You need to think about what you want. And why what you get seems to leave you so empty. This comes up a lot with you, this note of disappointed expectation. I think you feel like a bargain has been broken when you say you do what you’re supposed to do. You understand that a deal was never struck, don’t you?
Hen never attends therapy, but she is finally permitted to go to her daughter’s flat for dinner and meet her boyfriend, John. A man Hen met traveling also attends the dinner. The awkward evening is yet another example in a series of Hen’s disappointed expectations. She is unable to converse naturally with anyone at the table. John observes of Hen, after their first meeting, that:
It just became quickly obvious that 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. Or experiencing what was actually happening.
Hen’s inability to square her idealized expectations with reality and the impact that inability has on her children will be familiar to many readers. Riley’s evocation of the passive-aggressive mother is understated and deeply realistic. There’s nothing hyperbolic about My Phantoms, which makes the novel’s core unhappiness even more unsettling.
Take for instance Riley’s portrayal of Bridge’s narcissistic father Lee. Like Hen, he is unable to clearly communicate with his daughters. Instead, he picks on them with stock phrases and formulations. “I’m testing the produce!” Lee declares in the grocery store, stealing grapes to his daughters’ embarrassment. He mocks Bridge for reading Chekov, insisting that she’s merely “posing with a book. He makes lewd comments about women’s bodies to his daughters. And yet his hectoring ultimately fails to get under their skin. They learn to tune him out, and choose to have nothing to do as soon as they are able. Lee is possibly the most annoying character I’ve read in a contemporary novel. Unable to communicate with his daughters, he verbally bullies them in a light style that might be plausibly denied as actual abuse. But it is abusive. Lee is a man who believes himself to be much smarter and much funnier than he is, and when the world around him fails to notice his supposed brilliance, he responds by amplifying his obnoxiousness. I am sure you know someone just like him in your own life.
Bridge’s estrangement from her parents is unhappy—and realistic, as I’ve noted repeatedly. It’s her disconnection from her sister Michelle that I find most sad about the novel. It is not that the two are on bad terms; rather, they seem to have cultivated distance as a coping mechanism. What might have brought them closer instead separates them. But again, that separation is realistic.
There’s no joy in My Phantoms, and the bits of humor are bitter. The enjoyment in the novel comes from slowly piecing together the emotional reality behind the accretion of realistic details in the foreground. Bridge isn’t necessarily an unreliable narrator, but she’s rarely direct. She shows us scenes from her life and comments on their emotional impact–but she never tells us what they mean, even as we reach the novel’s indelible and unhappy final image.