If, like me, you read the advice section of the Atlantic at the expense of its news and political coverage, you’ll find the same genre of query reappear. “Dear Therapist, my mother/father/son/daughter/sister/brother/in-law is toxic. Do I cut them off?” (Some recent examples: “Dear Therapist: Can I Cut My Mom off from My Children If She Won’t Seek Therapy?”; “Dear Therapist: We’re Cutting My Husband’s Parents out of Our Lives”; “Dear Therapist: My Daughter’s Boundaries Are Preventing Us From Having a Relationship.”) Gwendoline Riley’s latest novel, My Phantoms, published in the UK in 2021 and the US in 2022, is about someone tempted, by turns, to cut her parents off and set firm boundaries with them. The column that best describes her plight might be: “Dear Therapist: Should I Just Accept That My Relationship with My Mom Is Beyond Repair?”
Riley has made a name for herself with taut, slender novels like this one. The prose is tough and unadorned; exposition is sparse. The narrator, Bridget, is a middle-aged academic with a boyfriend and a sister with whom she is on speaking terms, just. But this novel is, true to its title, not about her present-day relationships but her past, specifically her divorced parents. The first third focuses on her father, “A gripper of shoulders. A pincher of upper arms,” who teases and talks at his daughters through childhood and adolescence. The rest of the novel is about Bridget’s narcissistic mother. Ironically nicknamed “Hen” (short for Helen), despite being nothing like a mother hen, Bridget’s mother can’t feel much of anything except for the fact that she’s been cheated—two “awful husbands,” as her daughter never fails to remind her, a boring job, a life drifting between suburbs and city centers, a superficial friendship with a gay man named Griff. No matter how many moves she makes, how many flats she lets, she is chronically dissatisfied until aging and illness seem to cheat her of the last thing she has: her life.
Hen’s daughter will only meet her once a year for their annual February birthday catch-up dinner. Attempts at having and not having a relationship falter in equal measure; time and again Bridget runs up against something “unyielding” in her mother. “I do not understand your life,” she says at one point. Later, when Hen has an operation, they seem to be making progress: Bridget suggests therapy, Hen cries, they hug. But shortly thereafter Hen embarks on a cruise. “I’m travelling the world,” she brags. Bridget has failed to make headway.
Yet the novel’s acerbity cuts this otherwise bleak story of aging parents and their overburdened children. Riley has a penchant for acidulous dialogue. When Bridget hypothesizes that a trip might make her mother “finally happy,” her sister snaps back: “[You] say ‘finally happy’, but I don’t know what that could mean really, for her.” When her mother alludes cryptically to abuse by her ex-husband, Bridget comments: “I never learned anything more about the ‘things he made me do.’ What restraint I’d shown in not pursuing that. What sly restraint.” Bridget’s pitiless self-analysis keeps the narration from sounding petty. Everyone’s flaws are shown up close. It is like looking in a magnifying makeup mirror: the view is unflattering, but it’s hard to look away.
But while it shares some thematic similarities with an advice column, My Phantoms is not fundamentally therapeutic or confessional. It does not take sides or justify its narrator’s life choices. Instead, we come to view Bridget and her sister as phantom versions of their parents. Their lives, with live-in boyfriends and flats in more cosmopolitan neighborhoods, don’t seem, on balance, any better than their parents’. Their only significant life decision appears to be not having children, and thereby not repeating the pattern of negligent parenting that afflicted them. But there’s nothing very redemptive about that. They haven’t made “better choices”; they’ve just declined to make the same bad ones. Mercifully, no handwringing about childlessness is to be found in My Phantoms. Yet another reason why this novel—unlike, say, works in the parenthood-fiction genre like Motherhood by Sheila Heti, or Edouard Louis’s novels about his parents, Who Killed My Father? and A Woman’s Battles and Transformations—feels built to last: it does not self-consciously seek to participate in contemporary discourse. It just tells a story, and tells it well. My Phantoms feels particularly welcome right now, when the topic of severing ties is ubiquitous, and when bad advice on the subject abounds. Although it is not yet as well decorated as Riley’s acclaimed early novel, First Love (still underrated on this side of the Atlantic, but newly reissued by New York Review Books in tandem with My Phantoms), it is one of the past year’s best.