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My Phantoms Reviews

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms

Gwendoline Riley

4.05 out of 5

12 reviews

Imprint: Granta Books
Publisher: Granta Books
Publication date: 1 Apr 2021
ISBN: 9781783783267

From the prize-winning author of First Love comes an eviscerating account of a toxic mother-daughter bond, grief, and the damage done in the course of a life.

  • The BooksellerEditor's Choice
5 stars out of 5
Alice O'Keeffe
8 Jan 2021

"... an emotionally complex, caustic novel about the mother-daughter bond, both lacerating and funny: what a combination."

Latest from the hugely talented, and prize-winning, author of First Love is narrated by 40-something academic Bridget, who sees her mother Helen ("Hen") just once a year. But why? Hen, the reader comes to understand, is a difficult woman with few friends, twice-divorced, with seemingly no self-awareness at all. As Bridget recounts their relationship over the years, this develops into an emotionally complex, caustic novel about the mother-daughter bond, both lacerating and funny: what a combination. I thought this was extraordinary. Don't miss it.


4 stars out of 5
21 Apr 2021

"A mother-daughter relationship laid bare with raw ingenuity"

Riley has a beautiful way of cataloguing memories and earmarking unpleasant experiences with a visually arresting turn of phrase. Bridget describes Helen’s tendency to not oblige but just passively listen to her as “I’d see my pleas sported as trinkets”. She depicts her father as “an energised bother” whose company was something she “weathered”.

My Phantoms juxtaposes Bridget’s recollections of her mother’s life during Bridget’s childhood with her present-day efforts to simultaneously maintain her relationship with her while also keeping her at arm’s length.Their relationship dynamics switch up in the latter half of the book after Helen’s second failed marriage, following which she moves into a city-centre apartment in Manchester, hoping to meet her daughter more. 

4 stars out of 5
10 Apr 2021

"a distilled psychological tour de force from an exceptional writer"

My Phantoms is a distilled psychological tour de force from an exceptional writer. Riley has a mimic’s ear for feeble gags, absurd catchphrases and pretension. Even her punctuation is withering; rarely have exclamation marks looked so desperately cheerful, inverted commas so mocking. From minute, quotidian details — impasses, the unsaid — Riley weaves a painfully funny and acute study of disappointment, self-delusion, unbridgeable fissures and the conflicting forces of loyalty, pity, vexation and guilt. Bridget’s detachment can read uncomfortably, begging the question: how would you treat such a mother?

4 stars out of 5
10 Apr 2021

"sharp, funny and coolly devastating"

Critics have accused Riley of writing only about her own life — like her, her protagonists are all writers, hailing from north-west England and their parents are all of a type — but to see only biography is to miss her skill as a novelist. Riley has the ability to draw out the subtle workings and cruelties of relationships and psyches, and wrest them into compact, hard-hitting stories. We should hope that Riley goes on as she has done, her female characters — complex minds, written with sharp intelligence and humour — ageing in line with her own passage through adulthood. If she does, she will produce a legacy of unflinchingly told stories about the lives of contemporary women.

4 stars out of 5
7 Apr 2021

"Riley misses nothing, and her icy evocations of dysfunction and distress are unforgettable."

Gwendoline Riley’s mordant fiction has won many admirers, and they will not be disappointed by this new novel. Her distinctive first-person voice, uncompromising and clear, is once more telling a story of baffled disaffection. Here again are the everyday settings – the cafés, flats, streets and kitchens where people fail to understand themselves, or to communicate with others. The pleasures of inventive plot are not in evidence. Instead, the exercise of exact observation, and an extraordinarily accurate ear for the rhythms of dialogue, seize the reader’s attention. Riley misses nothing, and her icy evocations of dysfunction and distress are unforgettable.

4 stars out of 5
Claire Allfree
4 Apr 2021

"Savagely funny, frequently painful and utterly merciless, Gwendoline’s Riley’s new novel dwells on the unpleasant dynamics between a woman and her parents to devastating effect"

There are phantoms in this book – Hen hints once that her marriage was darker than it seemed; Bridge, obliquely and confusingly, alludes to the possibility that her childhood might have been, too. But it’s not Riley’s concern to explain or illuminate. There’s a lot of sentimental, affirmative fiction about femininity out there at the moment. This jagged little novel stands as a bracing corrective.

4 stars out of 5
Alex Preston
4 Apr 2021

"A mother and daughter’s tense relationship makes for a devastating, quietly brutal novel"

So it is that, thinking we are reading a novel about a pair of equally awful parents, we begin to question Bridget’s status. Why is it that she insists on maintaining such rigorous distance from her mother, never allowing her into her home? Why is it that her own life seems so empty, that her relationships with her bloodless boyfriend, John, and her sister, Michelle, lack any sense of warmth or joy? When Hen has an accident and Bridget goes to look after her, we sense the possibility of a rapprochement. Instead, with quiet brutality, Riley charts the impossibility of communication, the viciousness with which each defends their territory. The end, when it comes, is devastating, bleak, unforgettable.

4 stars out of 5
Stephanie Cross
1 Apr 2021

"In 2018, the Times Literary Supplement named Riley as one of the best living novelists in Britain and Ireland, and her talents are evident."

In 2018, the Times Literary Supplement named Riley as one of the best living novelists in Britain and Ireland, and her talents are evident.

Bridget, forensically and mercilessly insightful, knows she’s trapped as one half of an excruciating double act, and she and Hen perform their miserable parts in dialogue that is utterly convincing.

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
4 stars out of 5
Justine Jordan
1 Apr 2021

"The difficult relationship between a mother and daughter is mercilessly dissected in this astute, bitterly funny novel"

This is a brilliant portrait of a mother-daughter relationship in which every encounter is a battle because both sides want something more, or different, than the other will give. “I loved being in our flat. I loved closing the door behind me,” Bridget writes. And then in a deliciously uncomfortable standoff, Helen threatens to piss in her doorway if Bridget won’t let her in. “‘I’ll just go here then shall I?’ she said. ‘I’ll just do it here.’” But Helen also resists and refuses Bridget in her turn: her questions, her advice, any revelation of her authentic, uncontainable self. The mothers in Riley’s books are always baring their teeth to their daughters, like angry dogs or frightened chimps (Helen is more than once compared to a dog: abject, unknowing, animal). They bring intimacy, and its trailing twin, shame; in First Love, when the child Neve kisses her mother’s bare foot, she recoils. “‘That’s like what a … boyfriend would do,’ she said. ‘Not your daughterNo.’”

4 stars out of 5
Stuart Kelly
31 Mar 2021

"Gwendoline Riley’s latest novel is a potent mixture of excruciating humour and heart-rending pathos"

There is a great deal of psychological perceptiveness in this slim novel, and in contrast to some of Riley’s other novels, there is a melancholy redemption about it. Riley has written of slight and snatched happiness before, but rarely the kind of vexatious possibility of relationships being righted. One of the cadenzas here is “Hate hate hate. But my mother didn’t hate. It was just a word she used. It was just her announcing-ness. She thought it sounded vital and dashing. She thought it set her apart.” That seems like a plausible summary of the novel itself, and it does set itself apart, and is vital, and dashing.

4 stars out of 5
Johanna Thomas-Corr
28 Mar 2021

"This author proves once again that she is a master of familial chaos"

Riley writes about ordinary life with a mordant clarity that recalls the writing of Alice Munro and Denis Johnson. The dialogue is superb, yet you are aware of the gap between what is being said and what’s really going on. Like many female writers of her generation, she strains at the idea that women in fiction need to be likeable. Her characters are misfits, hard to place. Most of them are isolated, some are a bit mad. They often do things that make no sense. Yet these struggling individuals feel so agonisingly real you can’t look away.

3 stars out of 5
Melissa Katsoulis
27 Mar 2021

"serious, well-made and good"

This is a serious, well-made and good, but not enjoyable book that points to a very British sort of dysfunction and offers no solutions. After all, there can be no winding up or pulling together when the bonds between two souls are so tangled and frayed. The only hope is to make a stylish piece of art out of it, and Riley has done that perfectly, for the sixth time.