My Phantoms | Gwendoline Riley #GBRfiction

There was ‘nothing for him’ in England.

The trouble with reading faster than one is blogging, is the backlog of reviews and trying to remember what I wanted to say about each book. I currently have eight books waiting to be reviewed.

Thankfully I jot down notes as I go along and I underline interesting sentences and asterisk sections I want to research. And sometimes waiting to review a book can reveal things that only time can produce. My Phantoms may not necessarily be one of those books – I’m struggling to remember many details of the book – but I am left with the more general feeling that I really do enjoy the angsty, tortured relationships that Gwendoline Riley is making her specialty. And I will eagerly pick up her next book.

I read First Love by Riley for 20 Books of Summer Winter back in 2017.

I was pretty impressed by the disturbing, disquieting, toxic love affair at the heart of it. My Phantoms was no different. This time, though, she drilled down on toxic parent/child relationships.

Her ability to draw out small quirks of character and behavioural tics is remarkable and very unsettling. Both parents in this story were pretty ghastly. They were so selfish, so self-absorbed, so caught up in their own lives and issues, that the children never really stood a chance at being ‘normal’.

He felt himself to be at large in a world which got as much of a kick of him – out of him-being-him – as he did.

Detachment and wry humour were the main survival techniques used by our protagonist, Bridget, to protect herself from this bad parenting.

Clearly both parents had their own childhood issues. The frustrating thing is that they never dealt with them, or acknowledged them or saw how their behaviours impacted on those around them. They were utterly oblivious to the damage they caused. They operated in their own reality. A reality that was completely unable to accept any other possible reality.

We’ve all met people like this. Riley’s skill is her ability to bring to life the quirky, very specific behaviours and sayings that make these characters feel so authentic. She captured the psychological drama and tension of living with unpredictable, unstable personalities brilliantly.

Bridget’s adult life felt very precarious. She’d worked so hard to make different choices, yet her aloof, arms-length, mocking approach did not seem designed for happiness either. The damage runs deep. It is inter-generational and manifests itself in many different ways.

I’m a little nervous about delving into Riley’s background in case I discover that there are very good reasons why she is able to describe so intimately such toxic relationships. Or perhaps, like me, she is simply fascinated from the side lines. Although when I say side lines, perhaps I really mean windows. Looking in on such toxicity, whether it’s through one’s work or through lived experience, it taints you. It’s like a scab you keep picking at, trying to work it out.

I find Riley’s stories utterly compelling and spell-binding, but they could be triggering from some.


Riley seems to have a thing for two-word titles: Cold Water, Sick NotesJoshua SpasskyOpposed Positions

Favourite Quote:

Anything could set him off, or not set him off. All depending on how he wanted to feel; on what kind of satisfaction he wanted to extract. Not provoking him could provoke him. It often did provoke him.

Favourite Character:

Not sure I have one. Although I regularly felt the need to hug Bridget.

Favourite or Forget:

I may not recall all the details, but I am constantly drawn to Riley’s world of family dysfunction. I will keep on reading everything she writes.

Book: My Phantoms
Author: Gwendoline Riley
ISBN: 9781783783267
Publisher: Granta
Date: May 2021
Format: Hardback
  • Book 8 of 20 Books of Summer Winter
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

5 thoughts on “My Phantoms | Gwendoline Riley #GBRfiction

  1. Funnily enough, I saw another reader raving about this novel on Twitter recently and it reminded me that I ought to try Riley’s fiction at some point. She sounds incredibly assured and precise as a writer, very incisive on the psychology underpinning these relationships. Many thanks for a very interesting review!


  2. I don’t know Riley at all. I’m pretty sure she has not been amongst the hundreds of audiobooks I have consumed, almost randomly, over the past few years. That said, it amazes me how, over and over, bad parents still produce ordinary, functional children.


    1. Sometimes!
      My teaching years saw some pretty dysfunctional stuff going on and the impact on the kids was profound, at only age 4.
      I am continually drawn to such stories though. I’m reading a French memoir at the moment, of a highly dysfunctional family and the impact on the kids and grandkids. On the surface many of them appear to be normal, but inside…..they’re a mess.


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