Review: My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley (2021)


Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2022

Helen Grant is a mystery to her daughter.

An extrovert with few friends who has sought intimacy in the wrong places; a twice-divorced mother-of-two now living alone surrounded by her memories, Helen (known to her acquaintances as ‘Hen’) has always haunted Bridget. Now, Bridget is an academic in her forties. She sees Helen once a year, and considers the problem to be contained.

As she looks back on their tumultuous relationship – the performances and small deceptions – she tries to reckon with the cruelties inflicted on both sides. But when Helen makes it clear that she wants more, it seems an old struggle will have to be replayed.

From the prize-winning author of First Love, My Phantoms is a bold, heart-stopping portrayal of a failed familial bond, which brings humour, subtlety and new life to the difficult terrain of mothers and daughters.


My thanks to FMcM Associates for sending me the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist, which My Phantoms was on. It’s a fantastic list of books – if you are looking for reading inspiration, do check it out!

This is a book that cuts close to the bone: a subtly devastating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The tragedy of Bridget’s situation creeps up slowly, folded into the myriad layers of complexity that make up her relationship with Hen. It is an utterly brilliant depiction of just how damaging failed family relationships can be – and yet, we also see how Bridget has worked hard to build her own life, to keep her mother at a distance in order to preserve her own stability.

The barriers that Bridget has put up to protect herself are really cleverly drawn in the novel, because the reader, too, is kept at a kind of distance from Bridget’s personal life, from her interiority as it pertains to anything other than her parents – her partner, John, remains on the periphery, and we only get the briefest of glimpses of their life together. For a first person narrative to be so carefully selective, so guarded is rare, and it’s an incredibly intelligent way of echoing her strategy with her mother. It makes the book all the more poignant, as it highlights just how much effort Bridget has to put into constructing a safe space for herself; how complex it is for her to negotiate her mother’s whims and shortcomings.

This is a brilliant novel: piercingly intelligent, agonising in its unsparing examination of a virtually impossible relationship. I felt so, so deeply for Bridget, though she herself never slips into self-pity. She does what she has to do – she treads the line that keeps her safe as delicately as possible – and I found myself glad that she has her private life with John that she can keep away from prying eyes, even if those eyes belong to the reader. It’s a completely original book – I haven’t read anything like it.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley is published by Granta and is available to purchase here.


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