Inter-generational friction is hardly new, but it does feel like the tension between boomers and their millennial children is more fraught than usual. On the one hand, you have a cohort who own their homes and can look back on lives of travel and financial security; their children, however, are perma-renters eking out their existences in precarious jobs and frying their mental health with social media. It’s fertile ground for fiction and few have charted the territory better than Gwendoline Riley.
My Phantoms is Riley’s seventh book in a career that began in her early 20s and has now stretched over almost two decades. Her novels are told in the first person, always from the perspective of an enigmatic, slightly distanced female narrator whose reliability is gradually revealed to be suspect. Here we meet Bridget Grant, daughter of parents who separated long ago but who each maintain a fierce and inexorable hold over her. This is despite the fact that she barely sees her mother, Hen, while her father, the riotously awful Lee, died several years ago.
Riley’s novels get under your skin. My Phantoms is unsettling for many reasons – the way it picks at the scab of unconditional love, the way it interrogates questions of inheritance and influence. More than anything, though, it’s the fact that it chips away at the compact between reader and narrator, asking us to examine the natural bond of sympathy that springs between the storyteller and her audience.
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.
• My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley is published by Granta (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
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