In the essay “Dreams of Her Real Self,” the Australian writer Helen Garner performs the difficult task of honestly appraising her mother. Difficult because love and honesty may be at odds; it is discomfiting to outgrow your parents, to feel more intelligent or more sophisticated than they are, as if you were somehow robbing them of a gift that they already gave you. And careful observation can be so close to mockery: “She used to wear hats that pained me,” Garner writes. “Shy little round beige felt hats with narrow brims. . . . And she stood with her feet close together, in sensible shoes.” Garner admits that she finds it hard to get her mother into focus, in part because her overbearing father did such a good job of blocking the view, “as he blocked her horizon,” and in part because her mother’s hesitant self-effacement rendered her both genuinely obscure and obscurely irritating: “She seemed astonished that someone should be interested in her.” To be her intellectual superior, Garner writes, “was unbearable.” Yet she also admits to the guilty pleasure of refusing her mother the easy concessions that she knows will make her happy. An intimate portrait expands naturally into a social and political sketch: daughter and mother represent not only different generations but different examples of female ambition and opportunity.
I thought often of Garner’s essay while reading two short, savage novels by the English writer Gwendoline Riley, “First Love” and “My Phantoms,” both published by New York Review Books. I may have encountered more ambitious first and second novels, but I don’t recall reading any as grotesquely honest about the original sin of being born to inadequate parents. Riley has Garner’s quick eye for detail but replaces her anguished charity with vengeful clarity. Both of her novels have the unguarded nudity of correspondence; they have no time for the diplomatic niceties, the aesthetic throat-clearing of most literary fiction. The two novels relate to each other like twitching limbs from the same violated torso. Each one is narrated by a young, bookish woman—Neve in “First Love,” Bridget in “My Phantoms”—who lives in London with a male partner. In each book, this young woman, reared in lower-middle-class Liverpool, is struggling to achieve independence from her ghastly and abusive parents, who separated when she was small. In each book, the narrator’s father is a cruel boor and her mother a damaged fool, wreathed in the spoils of her defeat. In each book, the awful father is dispatched within the first forty or so pages, with the novel spending the balance of its negative ledger on the awful mother. In Riley’s economy, fathers are brutish but die off (“First Love”) or, in their martial primitivism, can be swerved around, like sluggish tanks (“My Phantoms”). Mothers, alas, stick around longer and want more, cleaving to their adult children with a sickly persistence. Mothers are the life problems with which Neve and Bridget must do serious battle.
Ford Madox Ford once said that his friend Joseph Conrad was never really satisfied that he had properly established his characters on the page—what Ford calls “getting a character in.” Ford speculated that perhaps this lack of literary confidence accounted for the great length of some of Conrad’s novels, as if the uncertain novelist were condemned to try and try again. In this respect, Riley is Conrad’s opposite: her novels are so short because they are so confidently exact. She knows just how to get her characters through the doorway and into a scene—all that they have to do, in order to sign their own moral death warrants, is start talking. In “My Phantoms,” Bridget’s father, Lee, likes to lecture his teen-age daughter about her reading. He’s the kind of joker who snatches her book from her hands, and then bullyingly opines on it—this writer is a “creep,” that one was recently on TV and is a pretentious “poser,” and so on. When he sees her reading Chekhov’s plays, he’s scornful: “ ‘You do know there’s no point reading things in a translation,’ he said. ‘Because it’s not the original language,’ he explained. ‘It could be anything.’ ” He seems to route all literary knowledge through a single novel, which he heard on the radio as a boy, and is dismissive of any competition: “Get back to me when you’ve read _Of Mice and Men! _” Something about that formulation, “get back to me,” with its hollow male swagger, its reek of David Brent’s Slough office, instantly gets this character in.
In the same novel, Bridget’s mother, Helen, brings a new boyfriend to a café to meet Bridget. The boyfriend is called Joe Quinn, and he exists in the novel for only a few pages. It’s all that’s needed. At first, Joe silently drinks his Guinness while looking at the back wall of the café. As long as he keeps his mouth shut, he might be passable, but then he opens it. This is the extent of his engagement with Bridget:
Joe is in. And swiftly out.
In Riley’s world, the women who consort with such men have been emptied of their confidence and are merely mimicking the men’s aggressive insistence with their own passive-aggressive survivalism. They’re easily flustered, and they tend to overperform their anxiety in a futile effort to draw its sting. In “First Love,” Neve’s mother looks “frightened” when a waitress puts an unfamiliar teapot in front of her—it’s transparent, with a plunger—and whispers to her daughter, “How do we get the tea out?” In “My Phantoms,” Helen comes to London once a year, to celebrate her birthday with Bridget. Entering the designated restaurant, Bridget sees her mother sitting expectantly: “My mother was always there when I arrived: smiling at the room; determined to get the most out of her evening.” A few pages later, Helen tells Bridget about her new haircut, a recent extravagance involving a celebrity stylist. A disaster, of course, and not just because the stylist spent the whole time telling Helen about his previous client, a TV presenter: “I had to listen to him going on and on about this other woman’s wonderful hair. . . . I mean. Hello? And they’d brought me the world’s smallest glass of Prosecco, which was included, you know—sounds nice, but every time I leant forward to sip from it he sort of huffed like I was holding him up or something. . . . I mean it was wham bam thank you ma’am and don’t darken our doors again sort of thing.”
What unites the fathers and the mothers in these novels is their deep disappointment with the world. This disappointment serves as both hunger and food, arresting these damaged people at their endless banquets of hostility and revulsion. The men turn that hostility outward: “He could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him” is how Bridget devastatingly summarizes her father’s style. The women turn it inward. Both genders are fabulously self-involved, the women happier to riff—only because, one suspects, they are more talkative than the men—at tedious length, without any assistance from interlocutors. But one shouldn’t mistake their wounded narcissism for true self-love. Riley shows us how little they like themselves, how they cover their profound lack of confidence with volumes of nervous bluster. Lee tells Bridget to remember, apropos of Chekhov, that “Russia is huge.” And then he repeats himself, “It’s a really big place,” which, we’re told, he enunciates “seriously, almost angrily.” Bridget’s mother likes to say that she “hates” things. For instance, she goes to jazz concerts with a gay man named Griff, even though she “hates” jazz. Bridget knows better: “Hate hate hate. But my mother didn’t hate. It was just a word she used. It was just her announcing-ness. She thought it sounded vital and dashing. She thought it set her apart.”
Riley is a brilliant summoner of her characters’ “announcing-ness.” And how good she is at her own version, at swiftly announcing a mood, a moment, a tableau. With a few words, she can paint a dreary English January (“Each day brought just a few hours of dampened light”), a cramped Glasgow flat (“You had to squeeze into the shower, elbows tucked: a saint in its niche”), or some breathtaking desolation: “I didn’t, as a rule, talk to her about anything that mattered to me,” Bridget says of her mother. “Why upset her by talking about things she couldn’t understand or enjoy?” Likewise, Riley’s details are spare and killing. In “First Love,” Neve’s mother bravely moves from Liverpool to Manchester, determined to branch out as a single woman. She may still own the “purple-framed glasses” and “too-big thermal gloves” of her former life, along with her William Morris tote bags, but now she’s living on her own, in her “bachelorette pad.” And she is daringly growing her hair. Too daringly, perhaps. For her daughter sees all: “It lay in chancy locks around her neck, held back from her face that day by a padded Alice band.” That terrible appraising adjective, “chancy”—it doesn’t award too many chances to Neve’s poor mum.
Novels that so emphatically lack charity threaten to enroll the guilty reader in nothing more than the author’s hellish vengeance. They can seem hard to justify. One has the sense, reading Riley, of being involved in an alarming experiment, that of reading the world without the slightest mercy or compromise. But at least, in this state of nature, the dynamics of survival and damage are usefully laid bare. In “First Love,” Neve has fled the ruins of her violent upbringing in Liverpool for London, only to marry an older man, Edwyn, who seems as misogynistically abusive as her own late father. So she has effectively married her father, and is suspended between managing this new version of the tyrant she once called a “little imperator” and the attentions of her needy, sad, drifting mother. In other words, Neve has not escaped at all—she is her parents’ child rather than an independent adult, still firmly enchained in family. And how: Edwyn, a talented abuser, blames her for confusing him with her father while he behaves like her father and then blames her for being the kind of woman who gets abused by people like her father, which is to say, people like him. “You hated him, he was cruel to you, that’s the only relationship you understand,” he says.
Another result of Riley’s experiment in unillusioned dissection is that we truly see her characters, in their descriptive nakedness, alive and horridly vivid. The mothers of Neve and Bridget loom out of these books, essentially one composite figure, recognizable both as frail human beings and as solid English types. Easily intimidated by perceived sophistication, the Riley mother views the world suspiciously, since it seems eager to trip her up. Her social life, to use Riley’s word, is extremely “determined.” Divorced, intermittently single, she prosecutes a busy existence of talks, concerts, readings—the Victorian Society, the Wine Circle, the Clan Grant Society. She makes friends with men who are reliably less interested in her than she in them. “Are you a fan of garlic, Helen?” John, Bridget’s partner, asks when Helen comes to their London flat for lunch. He’s doing the cooking. Helen nervously replies, “Well . . . what do you mean by fan?” The exchange places us instantly in a certain kind of comic English universe, a middle England of petit-bourgeois prejudices and anxieties, of lovingly coddled provincialisms and mortal narrowness. For every English eccentric, there are two fellow-citizens desperate to appear anything but, desperate to be crushingly “normal.” (We know this abnormally normal world from, say, Mike Leigh’s play “Abigail’s Party”; Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit”; David Mitchell’s “Black Swan Green.”)
One thing that heartlessly unsentimental writing does is force the reader to generate the very sympathy such books lack. Stirred in this way, I found myself oddly drawn to Bridget’s mother in particular, perhaps because my own mother had a William Morris tote bag or two, belonged to a Scottish-clan society, and kept up many cultural “interests.” Like Helen, she also possessed a full complement of petit-bourgeois anxieties, tics, and unreadable rules (such as putting the milk into the teacup before the tea). In fact, “My Phantoms” is not without its glimmers of charity and compassion, and it’s a better novel than “First Love” for them. Once the cruel father is dispensed with, Riley brings Bridget’s mother to the front and center of the story. We witness Helen’s friendship with Griff, hear about her unfathomable two-year marriage to the boorish Joe Quinn, follow her as she—like the mother in “First Love”—moves to Manchester, watch her as she valiantly tries and fails to comprehend Elena Ferrante’s novels. (“But how can you read it if you haven’t got the two lead characters straight?” Bridget asks her mother in exasperation.)
“My Phantoms,” indeed, follows Helen all the way to the end of her life, when she is hospitalized, in her late sixties, with a brain tumor. In crisis, Bridget proves herself an unexpectedly faithful if still easily irritated daughter, visiting her dying mother as often as she can, even as Helen retreats into wordless hostility. The novel thus offers an enriching sense of a whole life surveyed, even if its arc is finally poignant—for Helen’s life lacked any great fulfillment, was of little consequence, and was remarkable principally for the short-circuiting of its ambitions and projects. What did Helen spend that life searching for? Bridget puts it precisely, almost tenderly: “A place she could feel was her rightful place, from where she could look out at other people less fearfully.” ♦