Writers & Company

Gwendoline Riley's new novel My Phantoms charts the fractured ground between mother and daughter

The award-winning English writer talks to Eleanor Wachtel about her latest novel My Phantoms, which charts the fractured ground between a mother and daughter.
Gwendoline Riley is an English writer. (Adrian Lourie)

British writer Gwendoline Riley is a master at depicting the subtle ways in which human beings can be cruel to each other — especially when they're family.

From the gulf between a mother and daughter in her new work, My Phantoms, to an abusive marriage in her award-winning previous book First Love, Riley's novels explore the reverberations of broken homes and unmet expectations, centering on the experiences of women. Her writing has been compared to Jean Rhys, Carson McCullers, Margaret Drabble and Virginia Woolf.   

Born in London in 1979 and raised in England's North West, Riley published her first book when she was in her early 20s. She's the recipient of a Betty Trask Award, a Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. In 2018, Times Literary Supplement named her one of the best working novelists in Britain and Ireland. 

Riley spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from London, where she lives with her husband and their cat. 

Attention and scrutiny

"In My Phantoms, I had a mother character who's very defensive and she's got this dual impulse. She wants to be looked at and have attention paid to her, but she doesn't want anyone to really look at her, to really see her, because there's some deep shame that she feels.

"So to have this daughter who's so keen to work out what's going on with her mother is a very tricky situation for her because it's a torment. She wants the attention, but she doesn't want the scrutiny. But the two seem to go hand in hand."

She wants to be looked at and have attention paid to her, but she doesn't want anyone to really look at her, to really see her, because there's some deep shame that she feels.

 

A growing rift

"The thing about Helen, the mother, is that she's had that terrible thing — a very happy childhood. She was born to doting parents in a very glamourous environment. Life was sunny and she was clever and she was a beautiful little girl.

"Then things just start to go slightly wrong and then very wrong. The rest of her life seems to be fixed in this moment of disappointed expectations, which is difficult for her and for the people around her because there's almost this emptiness that can't be filled.

"Then by contrast, her daughter Bridget had a rather crappy, rotten childhood. She had a bullying father. She had a mother who was very self-involved and no one was doting on her and things were not glamourous. So she did what people have traditionally done in English literature for a while, which is she left home. She went to London and thus this rift was born." 

Unbreakable barriers

"Bridget, the daughter in the story, has been asking, 'Why did you marry my dad? What on Earth went on there?' And then, at this moment of real vulnerability, the mother is about to say something. She's dropping these little bread crumbs, and all it would take would be for Bridget to say, 'Tell me mum, what happened? What was that like?' And instead she glides right on past and it's too late. She doesn't want to know. Maybe she doesn't care.

The daughter's thinking, 'Is that what I'm going to become?' The mother is thinking, 'Why didn't I have the opportunities she had?'

"Of course, there's all sorts of terror involved between mother and daughter. The daughter's thinking, 'Is that what I'm going to become?' The mother is thinking, 'Why didn't I have the opportunities she had?' I think if you're not careful, all sorts of resentment at worst, or a sort of bafflement at best, can spring up there.

"It seemed to be what I was drawn to. I finally did tackle it head on in this book."

Seeking a sense of control

"I think a lot of writers start writing, if not because they want control, but because they want to be able to approach subjects or situations that they feel unable to deal with in real life.

"And you can turn it to account in a novel. You can create something, you can evoke something, you make something.

"That to me, is infinitely absorbing and satisfying. But perhaps not because afterwards I can say, 'I've processed my feelings about my father now,' because I don't know if it really has done that.

You can create something, you can evoke something, you can you make something.

"It's more because I can go, 'Oh good, look at this handsome book I've written."

Gwendoline Riley's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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