My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley review – playing toxic families

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

“It’s a weird thing,” said Gwendoline Riley after the publication of First Love, shortlisted for the Women’s prize in 2017. “I don’t feel as if I’m building a body of work; each book is saying what I want to say, but better.” Over two decades and six novels now, she has refined her material; a writer/academic, called Aislinn or Carmel or Natalie or Neve, kicks away from the claustrophobia and emotional incontinence of her childhood in the north of England in search of a self-contained, autonomous existence in Manchester or Glasgow, America or London. Often she recounts vignettes from her early years; her mother’s flight from her father, weekend access visits to be suffered through with a sibling. She fixes her parents on the page with darkly comic precision, mercilessly attendant to their tics and repetitions: a monstrous bully of a father who, in Opposed Positions, says after his daughter’s novel is published, “Oh dear! Oof! Posing! Er, what?”; a mother who bleats in book after book, “Well, it’s a long time ago now, isn’t it?” “Well, it was just what you did.”

The mothers in Riley’s books are always baring their teeth to their daughters, like angry dogs or frightened chimps

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