One of life’s cruelties is how your identity adds up to the sum of your choices – where you live, where you run to, whom you marry, whom you run away from – and owes little to the self-image you hoard inside yourself. ‘It’s just not me!’ you may say about living in the suburbs, and yet, there you are, a woman with a hydrangea bush by the bins.
So protests Hen, the antagonist of Gwendoline Riley’s slim sixth novel, My Phantoms, which like all her novels is a masterpiece in compression. Hen is the mother of two daughters and twice divorced. The novel’s brisk opening chapter offers a résumé of her life – born in 1949 to ex-pat parents living at a Shell company camp in Venezuela, a retaker of A levels, a failed trainee teacher and an IT specialist at Royal Insurance in Liverpool, where she worked for three decades in an ugly building nicknamed the Sandcastle. We learn how, once she was back in England as a teenager, Hen’s ‘purchase seemed to slip’, and what follows in the novel’s taut pages is not so much the story of Hen’s life but the narrator, her daughter Bridget, reckoning with the mystery of her mother’s psyche.
We have encountered Riley’s difficult mothers before. In her previous novel, First Love, also slim, the mother was a chaotic pensioner with a ‘hot desire to join in with people who don’t want you’, such as her daughter. My Phantoms is the first of Riley’s novels in which a mother