To find Gwendoline Riley in her novels wouldn’t be hard, but it would be unrewarding. ‘People have the right to disappear if they want to,’ says Carmel, the narrator of her first. Cold Water, set in a Manchester dive bar, appeared in 2002 when Riley was 23. Since then she has published five more novels and a novella, but there have been no worthy, state-of-the-nation tomes. She isn’t likely to deliver a diatribe on Brexit. You won’t find her on a tote bag. There will be no social media stunts.
Riley’s landscape is the North of England: bars, motorways, housing estates. In her novels, there is often a monstrous father, and an awful mother too – though the latter is more subtly cannibalistic, more pathetic. The father will trash and attack; the mother will wheedle and whine. Her narrators – her Neves, her Carmels, her Bridgets – are what the punters in Cold Water would call ‘spiky lasses’. They move through life blinking, reorienting themselves, realising, time and again, that they don’t like a single person in the room. And the style? Always first person. Short, decisive sentences like doors slamming shut. Her time working in a bar served her well: Riley is constantly attuned to the moment when the glass is about to fly. In publishing speak, her books are ‘slim and devastating’, which is the sort of epithet that would get an eye-roll from one of her narrators. Because they often play the bitch. It’s one of their endearing qualities.
Riley is fluent in the language of divorce. The flailing attempts by the mother at an imagined, better life, at some ungraspable idea of fun. The childhood days out with the father: the pint glasses of Coke, the bitter car trips, the muttered barbs, the pointed questions, the restaurants. Christ, as a Riley narrator might say, I won’t recover from those restaurants. In First Love, Neve’s father, in response to his teenage daughter and son announcing they’re vegetarian, forces the brother to order lamb. The boy is sick at the table: ‘It poured out onto his plate with a hot little burp.’ This is a sort of foreshadowing – the father eventually eats himself to death. English horror is alive and kicking.
In My Phantoms, Riley’s latest novel, the mother character takes centre stage. Helen Grant has the disposition of a wounded animal, twice-divorced and in permanent need of distraction. Manipulative and wildly self-absorbed, she is capable of inflicting Livia Soprano levels of damage on her offspring. Helen hasn’t exactly got the life she wanted but, as her daughter Bridget tells us, she clings to the sustaining delusion that things might change:
As with her hating her job, and where we lived; as with her having got married and had children as a sort of high-stakes masquerade, designed to fool all but the One who was meant to see through it: her isolation could only further endorse her self-image. She was the fairy-tale misfit. The changeling. She only had to wait and be brave …
‘Why can’t that be me?’ Like a girl in a musical, at the front of the stage, about to sing her plaintive theme. And surely someone, the watcher-authority, Him, would decide it was her time soon? …
I felt that what I said was being scrabbled through for some currency quite other than meaning or information: rather for the glitter of that old magic coin, the token she could hold tightly and exchange for entry, for a real welcome, into her imagined other place.
Bridget describes her parents’ marriage, in the early days, as a game that if her mother ‘could never quite win, then she could at least keep playing’. The game ends with Helen’s escape back to her parents, after seven years. She remarries, but that doesn’t work out either. There are attempts to exert control over her life – there’s an organisation called the IVC, a social club for graduates and professionals, a pub quiz, a nature walk; then there’s the jazz outings, a gay friend called Griff (with whom she forms a double act, but holds mostly in contempt), arty cinema. Her interests are as scattered, frenetic and often as joyless as a teenager’s. Then there are the expeditions: Cuba, Thailand, Lisbon. The house moves: the Georgian flat in Liverpool, the semi in Woolton with the second husband, renting in Manchester and then finally buying in Manchester, accidentally in a hall of residence: ‘Yes really, it’s dreadful. I mean, the flat’s nice. I love love love the flat, but, you know, you think “city centre apartment”, you think, you know, Noo Yawk, or Frasier, not, basically, student accommodation.’
Noo Yawk has pull in a lot of Riley’s work: it’s the enchanted place you go to fix your life. ‘You know, Carmel, New York’s just like Manchester,’ the narrator of Cold Water is told by someone sensible, ‘only it’s taller.’ Aislinn in Opposed Positions moves there to write her novels and ends up destitute. Quick and clean escapes are nearly impossible in adulthood, as Neve describes in First Love: ‘In a new notebook, I wrote down his line: “It’s freedom that counts.” Did I believe it? It didn’t seem to be what I’d aimed for. The opposite rather. An illusion of freedom: snap-twist getaways with no plans: nothing real.’
There is a recurring character in several of Riley’s novels – an American musician with whom the narrator has an on/off relationship, largely conducted through email. Hers: clipped but interested; a woman still hopefully abiding by a contract. His: self-indulgent but needy. In First Love, she refers to him as Mr Reaching Out, Mr Reconnect. He is proof that even the merciless have blind spots. Riley’s women have poor taste in men. When Aislinn sends a nude photo to her lover in Opposed Positions, he responds: ‘It’s dead funny that you’re like dead clever and you just sent me a picture of your boobs.’ On meeting her mother’s second husband, Bridget remembers: ‘That there were no flies on him was what he seemed keenest to convey, and I didn’t find that as exciting as my mother appeared to … and I remember thinking, how curious that she couldn’t tell the difference between that and this. Between wit and coarseness. Sensitivity and boorishness. They were different things, didn’t she know?’
The men in these novels are often jobless, happy failures, heavy drinkers, weirdos. The narrators’ relationship to them is strange, sweet, often protective; Riley is not in the stomach-churning business of using a working-class man as a sexual prop. She is sensitive too, but she doesn’t leverage this – she’s not constantly reminding you of it. In My Phantoms, Bridget’s tyrant father reminisces about crying at this or that, being ‘devastated’ by one thing or the other. Be wary of people who advertise their strength of feeling.
Culture is the trickiest terrain for Riley’s characters to navigate. It doesn’t serve any of them well to talk about books; it doesn’t serve any of them to be seen with books. (‘You’re going to alienate a lot of people with all this posing,’ Neve’s father tells her.) In My Phantoms, there are two books in Bridget’s father’s flat: an old Private Eye annual and the complete Henry Root letters, both gathering dust on the bathroom windowsill. Regardless, he insists he’s a reader and buys a copy of The Satanic Verses which he pretends to concentrate on: his conception of this activity ‘involved bunching his eyebrows and letting his mouth hang open’. He maintains there’s no point in reading things in translation, that intelligent people learn the language if they’re interested. What is the purpose of all this upbraiding, all these efforts to one-up and humiliate his daughter? Fear, maybe. Intellectual insecurity. Then again, maybe he’s a sadist:
Sometimes, while I was reading or otherwise keeping to myself, this tender-hearted person would reach over and pinch me, under the ribs, using his thumb and forefinger. He’d keep his eyes on the television. He’d approximate a confused look when I reacted, and if I didn’t react, he’d wait a few seconds and then pinch harder. Or if I stood up to go to the loo, and if I was wearing my tracksuit, he might reach out and yank my trousers down.
At one point, he takes Bridget to a production of Three Sisters at the Everyman. On the way home he repeats things he read in the programme. ‘The thing you have to remember,’ he says, ‘is Russia is huge.’ The following week, he returns to the theatre bar with Bridget and her sister and finds an actress who was in the play. Of Bridget he slyly says: ‘My daughter’s the world’s expert on Chekhov.’ Bridget recognises that this whole encounter, this coup, is orchestrated only so it might be ‘brought out of the trophy cabinet later’. Her mother’s approach is different, but no less confused: she chases cultural life as if there’s a gun at her back. She attends every event as if it’s compulsory. Bridget has a memory of her coming to London for her sixtieth: ‘I felt for her when I spotted her coming over the Millennium Bridge in her waterproof hat and her too-big raincoat, fresh from an hour in the Tate Modern. She leant into the wind, her hands held out at her sides. The caption might have read perseverance.’
In both First Love and My Phantoms, the mother has a full social calendar, every day something on, which she describes cheerfully as ‘Hysteria and desperation!’ Helen Grant can be found at recordings of Radio 4 panel shows, at film screenings at FACT. When festivals come to the city, she buys a ticket for every event. What she is incapable of doing is talking about any of it, in even the most banal way. When Bridget challenges her, she retreats. At one stage, thinking her mother might enjoy being part of a phenomenon, she gives her the Ferrante books and receives a series of texts in response:
I don’t know who anyone is! :(
Is Lenu Lina or is Lena Lulu? Argh!
V confused. Too many names. Argh!
Still waiting for ‘Ferrante Fever’.
These exchanges can be played for comedy but the point isn’t to mock Helen: Riley wants to draw attention to how decorative our taste can be – and how little it does to assuage our loneliness. In Cold Water, the people Carmel encounters define themselves, often self-mockingly, by what they like: a habit of the young and adrift. By First Love, this has lost much of its sheen. The American, Michael, in one of their peculiar meet-ups, asks Neve what she has been reading and the question feels ‘bottomlessly sad’.
Bottomlessly sad is another way to describe Helen’s evenings out, her little social ventures, where she stops short only of begging for company. When she goes on tours and out to gallery evenings, hardly anyone speaks to her. ‘That the people in these tour groups and at those gallery evenings recognised my mother and said hello,’ Bridget suspects, ‘was probably enough.’ Looking back on her childhood, Bridget remembers that her mother had no friends, no phone calls or evenings out. More than anything she wants to be accepted, welcomed. She wants ‘a place she could feel was her rightful place, from where she could look out at other people less fearfully’. Fear turns up again and again: fear of other people, fear of yourself, fear as a motivating force. And what is there to be frightened of? Cafés where you don’t understand the menu, matching underwear, complex Italian novels, tapas, evenings alone, waitresses, cutlery, always getting it wrong, a violent husband. Helen tells Bridget: ‘There are things I’ve never told anyone … Things he made me do.’ Bridget doesn’t inquire further.
Mother and daughter are alike in some ways: both could be accused of living provisionally, both know how to absent themselves while appearing physically present. Both of them want to know – is this what life is really like? And does everyone know how to live it except them? In First Love, her father takes Neve to the Philharmonic, and she reports feeling ‘so shut down inside, even to music’. Her narrators manage to disappear even within their own stories. Empty, closed, gone.
Death is common in these novels. (In Opposed Positions Aislinn receives an email from her father with the subject line ‘my death’ that continues ‘only occurred in your book. In reality, I live on!’ That appalling exclamation mark.) In First Love, after her father dies, Neve sits in the bath every morning ‘dousing the coarse gooseflesh’. ‘I don’t understand,’ her partner, Edwyn, says, ‘You’re an intelligent woman. Did you imagine he was going to live forever?’ She visits her father’s home: ‘The house felt very lonely. Like a lonely child’s lair, really.’ There is the limp eulogy which his brother gives: ‘Now, Barry lived life to the full … he was spoiled rotten. And he continued to spoil himself rotten, I think it’s fair to say.’ Christine, her father’s sister, tells her that when her own father died she ran all the way back to the house from the hospital – ‘miles and miles, in the winter, and without a coat’. Your parents will do terrible, irreversible things to you. You will grieve them anyway.
My Phantoms ends with the mother’s death, after a tumour and six weeks in a care home. There is another feeble eulogy, where Helen is described as having FOMO. It also includes a nod to Griff (Rileyan humour: a few weeks before her death Helen’s response to the idea of him visiting is: ‘Ugh. No. Not Griff’). The last time Bridget sees her mother alive, they watch Columbo. Later, she looks on as Helen is lowered on to the bed by her carers, the sheet is pulled over her. Riley might avoid melodrama, but her lacerating style can shatter you in the space of a couple of words. (Miles and miles, in the winter, and without a coat …) The epigraph to Opposed Positions is from Philip Roth: ‘Did fiction do this to me?’ The only answer is to write another novel. The problem becomes the solution, the solution becomes the problem. Put it on a tote bag.