In 2007 Gwendoline Riley, then age twenty-eight and already the author of three acclaimed novels, described her writing life as lacking “any tremendous triumph or romance—I feel like I’m just always trying to be accurate, to get everything in the correct proportion.”
As literary aspirations go, it sounds modest. And by superficial measures, Riley’s novels are unambitious: light on conventional plotting, narrow in scope, and told from the perspectives of women close to herself in age and background. Riley has tried using the third person, she said in 2012, but it “always sounds so false.” As for adopting a male point of view: “Ugh, men’s brains! That vipers’ nest? No.” Her protagonists are writers, too, encouraging the frequent assumption that she draws directly from life. But to regard Riley’s fiction as titivated memoir is to misperceive what beguiles her readers: not barely mediated personal experience but its sedulous transmutation by a strange, rare talent. As Vivian Gornick wrote after reading the letters of Jean Rhys, a novelist with whom Riley shares some kinship: “The letters are the life, and the novels—there’s no mistaking it—are the magic performed on the life.”
Nor does Riley write autofiction, if authors in that contentious category aim to replicate the texture of life by dispensing with, in Rachel Cusk’s now famous words, the “fake and embarrassing” architecture of novels. When Riley makes you squirm with recognition, it’s not because of any explicit overlap between author and protagonist or winking acknowledgment of the writing process. Her uncannily observed female character studies, with their bracing emotional clarity, ruthlessly crafted scenes, and consummate use of the telling detail, belong instead to a certain feminist-existentialist tradition of realism. Literary forerunners to Riley’s work include Rhys’s interwar novels of female alienation, as well as Margaret Drabble’s groundbreaking early novels, in which intellectual young women grapple with the hazards and potentials of their desires, thus dramatizing, as the writer Jennifer Schaffer aptly put it, “a fighting urge to disturb the mold of one’s life, as it sets.” Yet what sets Riley apart from even these noble antecedents is her unshrinking determination to contemplate the unseemly, the discordant, and the unsolvable, without ever straying into despair or the maudlin.
Riley, who was born in London and grew up in Merseyside, published her Betty Trask Award–winning debut, Cold Water, in 2002, when she was twenty-two. Given her age, not to mention the gorgeous nouvelle vague–ish author photo adorning advance copies, some preconceived skepticism about the novel’s merit might have been forgivable. Forgivable, but unwarranted, because Cold Water is an understated classic. Our heroine in holey All Stars and a dress over jeans is twenty-year-old Carmel McKisco, a barmaid of a “downbeat disposition” who works in a low-lit Manchester dive, dreams of moving to Cornwall, and nurses an obsession with a failed musician whose band she loved when she was fourteen. Charting Carmel’s poetic musings and alcohol-fueled gadding about, this wistful little ballad of a novel captures with great verve and originality the bittersweet exhilaration of youth, with its various diverting limerences that, in the big picture, shouldn’t matter. “But, you see,” Carmel explains,
the point is, I’m not in the big picture. I’m in Manchester, and I can’t afford to leave just yet … For now I walk around through the scraping wind, through puddles full of brick dust, often with my feet so cold and sodden; the flesh of my toes like soaked cotton wadding spun round the bones.
In Cold Water, rain-bleared Manchester is seen through an artist’s eye. The lights in Piccadilly Gardens cast “an eerie medical glow against the smudge-grey sky.” Some “ragged carnations the color of evaporated milk and tongue” remind Carmel “of the old recipe cards in the back of a kitchen draw at my mum’s.” This light-handed imbrication of visual and emotional detail to conjure atmosphere, a hallmark of Riley’s early novels, makes for the kind of immersive, effortless read that’s often underrated as easy to write. Here’s the short story writer Esther, in 2004’s Sick Notes, describing her roommate’s bedroom:
There’s a duvet cover, framed postcards on the wall, ornaments even: dried up sea urchins, a crouching child figurine, a tiny pair of painted wooden clogs, a ship in a bottle and a Russian doll flanked by the two rubber ducks I got her for her last birthday. Also a plain brass photo frame holding a picture of a small girl standing by a piano. The kid’s on tiptoe, reaching up to jab at the keys. The curtains behind her and the jumper underneath her dungarees are in sour seventies colors. Her facial expression is kind of sour too.
Esther, back in Manchester after a stint in the U.S., is poised restlessly between an unhappy childhood and an uncertain future. The disorder of her own bedroom, with its cardboard boxes and unfinished books “resting open on my bed like pitched roofs, like dead birds,” semaphores her emphatic itinerancy. She drifts around the city with a biro in her ponytail, thinking of “ways to describe the sky, the clouds, the light,” while dodging the perils of intimate connection. An idyllic romantic encounter with Newton, a touring American musician, affects Esther so deeply that she longs to somehow purge herself of it; the push-pull of her impulse to call him is the current around which the narrative swirls. In another writer’s hands, it would be a thin premise. But Esther’s chafing self-awareness as she wallows, postures, and seeks distraction is too convincing to ever feel trivial. “I have this monstrous self-pity in me,” she declares, “and this monstrous self-love.”
Riley’s sixth novel, My Phantoms, was published in the UK in April and hailed, with every justification, as a masterpiece. (Bafflingly, it has no U.S. publisher.) In this portrait of a fraught mother-daughter relationship, the author has elevated her gift for psychological verisimilitude to astonishing tragicomic effect. Sixty-something Hen (short for Helen), separated from her second husband and retired, pursues an elusive sense of belonging via constant outings: Wine Circle, Victorian Society, festivals, film screenings, gallery evenings. “I’m putting myself out there,” she tells her daughter Bridget, whose suggestions that she has a night in are met with a firm “No.” Over years of dutiful phone calls, lunches, and dinners, Bridget alternates between humoring Hen—managing to “put a penny in the right slot”—and trying to reconcile her with some version of reality. Hen is in determined flight from reality, as the dramatic crux of the novel underscores. Desperate to meet Bridget’s boyfriend, Hen badgers her about it until Bridget loses patience:
“Do you want me to tell you why, Mum?” I said. “Why I have to keep things separate?” She didn’t answer. “How many sentences do you think you could take on the subject? Three? Four? One? Could you consider and acknowledge one sentence?”
Haunting them both is Bridget’s late father, Lee, a mostly taboo subject. “It wasn’t me who was horrible,” Hen protests, “it was your dad. It wasn’t me.” During Bridget’s childhood, when she and her sister were legally mandated to spend every Saturday with Lee, Hen had recourse to a regular refrain: “There’s no point in provoking him, is there?” In Riley’s merciless characterization, Hen’s lexicon of well-worn phrases is a buffer against an intimidating world, the next best thing to silence, to risking no provocation at all.
The novel’s depiction of Lee, as filtered through Bridget’s forensic recollection, is a graphic testament to the terroristic legacy of petty, small-minded bullies, its unflinching realism unparalleled in anything I’ve read. A ceaseless fount of humiliations and mortifications, “needlings and exhortations,” Lee would dismiss his daughters’ interests—playing football, vegetarianism—with the remark: “No one’s impressed with your recent behavior.” Reading a book was “posing” or “bluffing”; a new haircut brought the inevitable query: “Did they catch whoever did that?” In Lee’s self-mythology he was, Bridget reflects, “a sort of beloved outlaw; an admired one-off.” To her, he was less a person than a formidable and relentless phenomenon: “A gripper of shoulders. A pincher of upper arms. If I was wearing a hat, a snatcher of hats. If I was reading a book, a snatcher of books. Energized bother, in short.”
Iterations of this character, equally unpleasant but not quite as sharply focused, appear throughout Riley’s work. Novelist Aislinn, in 2012’s Opposed Positions, is estranged from her father but must contend with a sinister barrage of his unanswered emails. “Showing off again are we?” he writes. Then, alongside four transcribed quotes from her novel: “Oh dear! Oof! Posing! Er, what?” One of the most appalling moments in 2017’s First Love, a novel full of jaw-dropping moments, is when the narrator, Neve, recalls being at her father’s house as a teenager. In front of his male friend, he ordered her to “clean up” the bathroom she’d just used. She was perplexed, but on close examination she found two pinpricks of blood on the toilet bowl. “Women just aren’t naturally clean, are they?” her father said to the friend. These are not operatic accounts of abuse à la Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life; Riley’s register is scrupulously uncathartic. Along with Neve, Aislinn, and Bridget you feel, deep in your guts, the banal unassuageable horrors they’ve endured.
First Love, which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was short-listed for the Women’s Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize, saw Riley begin to pare back her already stripped-down style to examine, at unsparing close range, an intermittently poisonous marriage. Neve’s older husband, Edwyn, who has a debilitating chronic illness and is prone to ferocious outbursts, casts their fighting as a replay of the rancor she had with her father. “You hated him, he was cruel to you, that’s the only relationship you understand. A man being horrible to you and you being vicious back.”
We don’t witness any viciousness from Neve, who prides herself on being “warm, attentive, mild,” and yet her relationship with Edwyn is evidently one of complicated codependence. He claims to have married her because she needed to be taken care of; she likens the process of keeping him calm by saying the right thing to “throwing some sausages at a guard dog”: a basic trick for someone who grew up walking on eggshells, when a wrong word “unlatched a sort of chaos.” The wry rhythm of Riley’s prose, which anatomizes this commonplace folie à deux with alarming efficiency, holds the reader in a helpless thrall.
Our thrall is all the tighter for the glimpses we get of Neve and Edwyn’s sincere affection and closeness, their silly, tender pet names (“lovely Mr. Pusskins,” “little compost heap”) and his habit of kissing her “repeatingly, and with great emphasis, in the morning.” Not for Riley the convenient narrative inexorability of the couple’s breakup, nor the readerly consolation of their reaching a better place (a phrase beneath Neve in its triteness, apart from anything else). As in Riley’s Somerset Maugham Award–winning third novel, Joshua Spassky, also a story of irresolute true love, romantic redemption is not even permitted chimerical status. “When you hold on to another person,” Joshua Spassky’s Natalie says to her titular lover, “I think you’re only ever really holding onto your own fathomless situation.”
Or, as Riley said a few years ago: “Human beings are incorrigible. This is a source of humor and pain.” Her alchemizing of this wellspring has created an extraordinary body of work, especially for an author scarcely over forty. Happily for literature, Riley seems monogamously bound to fiction as a form. She has expressed a disinclination for all other kinds of writing and doesn’t use social media, a choice befitting her austere mystique. We can hope, then, for many more novels whose quietly splendid triumph is, in the words of Neve: “To get to the truth, to the heart of the trouble.”
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words without Borders, and other publications. She was the first writer of the Daily’s Feminize Your Canon column.