Understanding Your Past Won’t Liberate You

Gwendoline Riley’s novels raise a skeptical eyebrow at the promise of redemption through unlearning past trauma.

black-and-white close up of two faces next to each other
Alex Majoli / Magnum

In the world of Gwendoline Riley’s novels, a parent’s love is not to be trusted. What should come innately here seems skewed and conditional. A reader gets the clear sense that nothing—not even this supposedly pure emotion—comes without a cost.

Such tension is at the core of her novels, as difficulties in her narrators’ present lives are set against familial discord and fraught relations between parents and children. Riley has earned a devoted readership in the U.K., but her work has been slow to gain attention in the United States. Her two most recent novels, My Phantoms and First Love, have just been published here simultaneously; they both feature heroines looking to their erratic parents and unhappy childhood for clues about the strain in their adult relationships. Yet these novels raise a skeptical eyebrow at pop psychology and its promise of redemption through analysis and unlearning past trauma. Understanding the past, Riley suggests, provides no such liberation.

There are so many similarities between these two novels that a chapter from one could be inserted into the other with little disruption. In this way, My Phantoms and First Love function almost as a diptych, shining light upon and reflecting each other’s concerns and questions. In both, we see a youngish woman trying to love and be loved. In both, a self-centered mother is rendered in exacting, withering detail. In both, an estranged father is dead. (However, I was thankful that the emotionally deranged husband in First Love, Edwyn, was replaced in My Phantoms by an upgraded boyfriend, John.)

Riley’s heroines, especially First Love’s Neve, seem to end up, inevitably, in relationships that mirror the turbulence of their childhoods. In First Love, Neve’s petulant husband, Edwyn, shouts things like “Get back in the sewer, scum” to her. He repeatedly brings up a night from two years prior during which she threw up after drinking, warning her not to do it again. “There’s no reason for you to think I might, though! It’s not logical,” Neve argues. “Well, it’s not illogical, either,” he counters. “It’s just fear. You gave me the fear … A lot of our hatred for one another comes from that night, doesn’t it?” Neve doesn’t reply right away. “Do we hate each other?” she finally asks. “I thought we loved each other. Last I heard.” The exchange encapsulates the total hopelessness of Neve and Edwyn’s marriage; neither seems capable of living with or without the other.

Some people, it seems, believe so much in their own worldview that they are prepared to project that outlook onto those around them. Edwyn is just such a person. “You don’t love me. You want to feel acknowledged and loved yourself,” he tells Neve. Riley ratchets up the tension in these fight scenes with awful, overwhelming precision and realism. Anyone who has been in an emotionally toxic relationship will startle with recognition, and anyone curious about what it’s like could well start here. Edwyn tries to control Neve by dictating her desires and motivations to her, and Neve has come to believe that she needs to be controlled in this way, first by her parents, then by Edwyn—to have someone else impose a narrative on her life rather than try, fruitlessly, to create meaning or understanding herself.

Narrativizing the past is often understood as a means to avoid remaining beholden to it, but Riley doesn’t exactly advocate for the redemptive power of such storytelling. Just as emotional awareness never moves in a straight line, neither do the plots of these fantastically upsetting books. Riley isn’t encouraging anyone to heal their past; she seems to be arguing that this kind of redemption is a myth.

In My Phantoms, Neve is replaced with Bridget, who is trying to avoid re-creating the instability and conflict of her childhood by dividing her life in two—prohibiting her mother, Hen, from meeting her boyfriend like a kid keeping foods separate on her plate. “But why am I being punished,” her mother moans, “when it was him?” She’s convinced that she’s paying the price for her dead ex-husband’s violent behavior rather than for her own ruthless volatility.

Hen complains that Bridget brought her boyfriend to her father’s funeral, to which Bridget responds, “He was dead! … I’ll bring John to your funeral, how’s that?”

At this point, her mother starts to cry. You feel for her for a moment, but they’re both being so awful that it’s hard to pick a side. Like Neve’s fights with Edwyn, there’s a self-perpetuating force in their bickering that seems to be what holds them together.

“Do you want me to tell you why, Mum?” Bridget taunts. “Why I have to keep things separate? … How many sentences do you think you can take on that subject? Three? Four? One?”

A painful silence. Pointillist syntax. Then they move on. Hen turns on the TV and starts “scrolling through various menus on the screen … ‘See anything you like?’” She isn’t interested in accounting for her culpability in Bridget’s damage, leaving her daughter to live in that reality alone. And Bridget’s efforts to keep the two parts of her life separate naturally disintegrate; the more she tries to leave her mother in the past, the more intensely Hen comes screaming into the present.

Both books burst with these sorts of aching dialogues, punctuated with endings that come out of nowhere—a knife stabbing a proclamation to a wall. Riley works with nervy, precise syntax, striking a tone that you might call prim if it weren’t also slightly off-key. In the middle of a fight with Edwyn, Neve is pierced with an insight: “I found myself thinking of certain people I knew … how surprised they’d be (wouldn’t they?) to see me sitting there with that bright, bland expression on my face, trying to fence with this nonsense. Or had I been very naïve? Was this what life was like, really, and everyone knew but me?” Would anyone who knew Neve be surprised to see her suffering so? I’m not sure they would. Show me a person who isn’t, in one way or another, either reenacting or reacting to their families of origin.

Riley’s work, though resonant in the present day—when love languages and attachment theory are common parlance—also has a timeless nuance. She slows her scenes down, like a record played at half speed, to reveal the hidden undertow beneath two people trying to reach each other.

These episodes of domestic dislocation reminded me, at certain moments, of Raymond Carver’s lost, love-hungry men and women. Like Carver’s, Riley’s characters lunge at one another again and again, trying to get a moment of pure human connection and coming away instead with bruises.

What also differentiates Riley’s world from Carver’s, however, could be the way they locate power. If Carver’s men (it’s usually the men) believe that they hold power over another person (usually a woman), his stories tend to show how these men never quite had that power, not really, or not in the way they thought. Riley’s characters are under no illusions as to their own agency. Instead, they seem painfully aware of how they’re at the mercy of their fears, patterns, and insecurities. No matter how much Bridget and Neve try to interrogate the possible origins of their difficulties, escape from a past that still informs their present isn’t possible. Escape, Riley implies, cannot even be the objective. The elusive and elliptical quality of these remarkable novels only further adds to this sense.

It’s telling that First Love was published in 2017, whereas My Phantoms came four years later. The grammar of the first title describes a course of events that sweeps people away, while the possessive construction of “My Phantoms” suggests a person pointing to their ghosts and saying clearly, Those belong to me. Those are mine.