My Phantoms is Riley’s sixth novel, and her best. A work of tightly compressed brilliance, it shares many elements with her previous books: a coolly observant narrator, characters who spend a lot of time in distressed contemplation of how their lives look to others, a preoccupation with self-deception and its corrosive effects, a lucidly expressed vision of a grim, stunted Englishness. Much of what makes it so extraordinary is present from its opening lines: Riley can create fully realized characters largely through snatches of speech, sketching out the contours of a dysfunctional relationship in an exchange ... one of the great achievements of My Phantoms is the way it shows how people can become closer even when they remain utterly baffled by each other ... Riley’s language is economical, her style cool, her humor ironic—yet the emotional pitch of the work as a whole is almost intolerably high ... At times I caught myself reading the book as if it were a detective novel, paging backward and forward in an effort to understand how exactly Riley managed to insert such a feral, panicked heartbeat into a work of such impeccable control. I returned to the book over and over again, underlining every second sentence, littering the spaces between paragraphs with question marks, periodically holding it as far away from my face as I could in case I might see something I’d missed earlier.
There is a fascinating tension between Riley’s concision—the books are slim, and her honed sentences can encapsulate a character in a few short words—and this expansive reworking of her subject area ... it’s easier to outrun a bad father than a bad mother, and the figure of Helen Grant here is more complicated, nuanced and interesting—to Bridget as well as to the reader—than her awful dad ... This is a brilliant portrait of a mother-daughter relationship in which every encounter is a battle because both sides want something more, or different, than the other will give ... sober, understated, subtle ... the forensic quality of Bridget’s attention is fuelled by imaginative sympathy as well as distance and disgust. As the book goes on, in all its horrible, funny, uncomfortable truthfulness, it feels increasingly like a complicated act of love.
... simplifies its narrator’s adult life—one contented partnership, one job, no friends worth mentioning—and as a result has a sharpness of focus that makes it Riley’s most unsparing novel, and her best ... Riley’s novels, consisting mainly of dialogue, work a kind of magic: Edwyn’s unhinged rants and Helen’s verbal tics and long, repetitive accounts of being slighted or overlooked are at once believably maddening and oddly addictive. Having to listen to these monologues would be unbearable, and yet to read them—to witness their absurdity without being their audience—offers a perverse pleasure.