Gwendoline Riley’s Biting Realism

Gwendoline Riley’s Biting Realism

By turns bracing and comical, her novels find in everyday domestic dramas the art of life.

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When Bridget Grant, the narrator of Gwendoline Riley’s new novel My Phantoms, was a child, her favored state was a dissociated one. She speaks with her mother as if from a script, presenting a series of prompts—about her mother’s childhood, her school uniform, her divorce—to which the other can quickly provide “the right answer, an approved answer.” Whenever Bridget and her sister Michelle are forced to spend time with their father, they learn “to sort of fade out of the moment” when he goes off on one of his comic routines, as if averting their eyes from a wild animal’s challenge.

These methods carry Bridget into adulthood, by which time they have calcified into a way of life, defined by gaps, absences, and a studious aversion to acknowledging the unseemly details that knit her family together. The techniques that helped her through a difficult childhood have made it impossible to see her family as anything other than obstacles to be avoided or crises to be contained.

Such fraught legacies are at the center of two recent novels by Riley, now issued for the first time in America: 2021’s My Phantoms and 2017’s First Love. These are terse, circumspect books, ranging freely across time as they fill in the life stories of two women from the north of England. Both are told through reams of unspooling dialogue, monologues delivered by people who wish to speak without being heard. From the very first chapter of First Love, the academic Edwyn frequently unloads on his young wife, Neve:

‘The project is not winding me up. The project is not trying to get in my head and make me feel like shit all the time!’
He shouted this on his way to the bedroom. Twenty minutes later—hot-cheeked, I watched the time on the cooker clock—he came back.
‘I don’t suppose it would occur to you that I’m miserable…’ he said, glumly but scornfully.
‘But of course,’ he went on, ‘I accept, you’ve got a much more informed world view than I have!’

My Phantoms puts these sorts of barbs in the mouth of Bridget’s mother, Helen—called “Hen”—who has trouble articulating much of anything beyond cliché. Early on, we learn that her chosen nickname is the product of a childhood speech disorder, and her coarse modes of expression and recourse to recycled phrases, Riley implies, grant Hen confidence, or perhaps solidity, in the face of her fractured family. “She loved rules and codes and fixed expectations,” Bridget confides. “I want to say—as a dog loves an airborne stick.” My Phantoms is full of such cold, cutting observations. But more often than not, Riley lets Hen speak for herself, which can be far crueler:

‘If you ask you don’t get,’ she used to say.
And, ‘Life’s not fair. Life’s not fair, is it?’
To Michelle she would repeat and repeat, ‘I can’t hear you when you shout. No, no, I can’t hear you when you shout.’
Or else she used to just say: ‘Tough titty.’
‘It’s just tough titty, isn’t it?’ she’d say.

Riley has a great ear for canned speech and the ways that people will resort to it in order to short-circuit and thus displace their own thoughts. Bridget’s father deploys it again and again as part of the fantasy life that he has created around a roguish persona he seems to have picked up from TV. First Love’s Edwyn, in seeking explanations for what he sees as Neve’s cruelty, resorts to clichés of class and regional resentment: the North, the dole, and so on—anything to avoid engaging with the uncomfortable truth of his own life. Desiccation is not merely an individualized protective response, Riley implies, but a practice that gradually closes one off from oneself.

The reader detects this fear in Hen, a fear of looking plainly at her own state. She engages largely with a received idea of what her life should be. She wants only to be like “everybody,” to have her actions declared “normal.” She enjoys stories of minor disappointments, so long as they happen to someone else. She attends performances, movies, and exhibitions so that she can later complain about them. “I think she liked finding life a bit crap,” Bridget observes. “It encouraged her, in a way.”

Through Bridget, Riley narrates large portions of the novel in the conditional tense, creating a routine out of Hen’s behavior. Misfortunes accumulate; years pass in a sentence. Hen is married and divorces again, moves from Liverpool to Manchester, and Bridget keeps her distance. “I did not visit my mother in Manchester, either,” she confesses, adding: “Nor did I call her like I used to. I fell out of the habit.”

As becomes clear, Riley is not merely painting an unpleasant portrait. Bridget’s dissociative contempt leaves her incapable of understanding her mother as anything other than an inconvenient object. She treats their conversations as a kind of game, in which her prompts are matched to whatever banal anecdote Hen will share in exchange. Most important is to elicit the correct responses, like a parent playacting with a preverbal toddler: “I was warm. I was engaged. I acted impressed or shook my head and commiserated, where appropriate.” Theirs is a relationship in theory, not in practice.

Bridget claims that her behavior is meant to protect her mother. “I didn’t, as a rule, talk to her about anything that mattered to me,” she declares. “Why upset her by talking about things she couldn’t understand or enjoy?” But as eventually becomes clear, Bridget’s elisions exist to exclude Hen, to manage her expectations until the next calendar year. She justifies this every time she highlights one of Hen’s quirks—her love of borrowed speech, her dogged superficiality. Yet in those few moments when her mother threatens to open up, Bridget deflects the conversation, sloughing off the burden of unconditional love.

Riley was born in 1979. She published her debut novel, Cold Water, in 2002, and over the next two decades she published five more, as well as a book of short stories. Her protagonists tend to be women from the north of England, whose meager circumstances in various temporary jobs often feel like a reaction to unsettled family histories. Riley’s fictions have an unusual rhythm, slipping between concise narration and pages-long dialogues, and over time she has expanded the latter until her characters have little to do but talk and talk, without really speaking to each other.

Take the birthdays that Hen comes down to London to celebrate with her daughter, long conversations at brief dinners in which nothing very much is said on either end. Bridget shares “accounts of my own minor upsets or embarrassments,” to which Hen replies: “Stop, Bridge! No! I can’t bear disappointment!” Words are expended, sometimes at length, but nothing is actually explained, with the omissions accumulating until the gaps between the two women can no longer be ignored. In My Phantoms, no emotion is so sincere that it can’t be dismissed by a wisecrack or covered over with cliché.

This has serious consequences for their lives, together and apart. Late in the novel, Hen is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Among its unnoticed symptoms, apparently, were diminished verbal capacity and an inability to hear others—problems that Bridget might have discerned had she not long regarded them as central to her mother’s character, and that we’ve come to cherish via the narrator’s comic asides. First Love’s Neve assigns her husband’s temper to the violent pain of a chronic condition, excusing his actions and justifying her place in his life. In offloading their emotions, Riley’s characters effectively absolve themselves of their troubles, placing their pain elsewhere: in the realm of the medical, the environmental, the psychiatric, but always someplace beyond their own control. Hers is a curiously opaque realism, depicting people who do not care to look at—let alone fill—the many gaping vacancies in their own lives.

Riley’s prose is brief, brisk, and peppered with plenty of caustic insights and crackling one-liners. Of her mother’s outings with her friend Griff, Bridget deadpans, “Did my mother like jazz? She did not. She ‘hated’ it. A fact which both of them seemed to treasure.” There is an especial eye for habit and tic—the way Hen “proudly” shudders, how a man’s attentions comprise a “forcing interest.” Such observations might be called keen, but they’re also a deflection: Bridget focuses so intensely on her mother’s behavior and omissions that for long stretches we are able to forget hers. She lets others go on so that she will not have to speak. She averts her eyes until we do, too.

In contrast with their recalcitrant narrators, each of these novels has a certain unresolved quality, a minuteness that gestures at the world beyond these particularly small lives. They read less like typical stories than accumulations of carefully curated incidents—portraits, not narratives. There are no crowbarred revelations or righteous speeches. Our narrators do not change their lives or repair their relationships. This gives them the ring of reality, as if each novel were a series of brief excerpts from a longer life story, necessarily incomplete. You can even read this as a form of deflection, casting our gaze outward, away from the writer. But perhaps Riley is also saying: There is no summing up, no resolution. Just more life, until there isn’t.

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