The Patrick Melrose Novels: by Edward St. Aubyn
This omnibus edition of four short novels – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk — has the most irritating and misleading cover I’ve seen in years. Why place a photo of a ‘ravish me” beauty with her head thrown back on a book which is about the painfully unromantic life and trials of a male protagonist? Nearly put me off enough to skip the book(s) but I’d been hearing so much about them, I gave them a try anyway. And each 150 page novella held me in thrall.
The first describes a wretched childhood, the second a drug addled youth, the third a white knuckled recovery and the fourth, marriage, parenthood and disinheritance (descending into alcoholism). The stories would be grim enough, but they are encased, or perhaps I should say entombed, in the muck of Old World wealth – think Downton Abbey gone rancid. Money and privilege infuse every aspect of St. Aubyn’s tales, in ways that are both clear-eyed and startling. For example, in the fourth book when the drunken adult Patrick visits extremely wealthy relatives on Long Island, he is taken on a tour of the grounds which includes a modern day Little Trianon of sorts, with a henhouse which is “somewhat larger than Patrick’s London flat, and so strangely undefiled that he couldn’t help wondering if these were genetically modified hens which had been crossed with cucumbers to stop them from defecating. Beth [the wealthy relative] walked over the fresh sawdust, under the red heat lamps, and discovered three speckled brown eggs in the laying boxes. Every plate of scrambled eggs must cost her several thousand dollars.” After this biting observation, Patrick decides “The truth was that he hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them. They were all too often only the shrill pea in the whistle of their possessions. Without the editorial influence of the word ‘afford’, their desires rambled like unstoppable bores, relentless and whimsical at the same time.”
Despite razor sharp observations like these, the writing here is uneven. Though I have no particular reason for thinking so, I suspect that these works of fiction are strongly autobiographical, and I further suspect that the clunkiest bits are the ones bound hand and foot to the facts – for example the scene in which an adult Patrick confesses to a close friend that he was abused by his father. However, in social settings, St. Aubyn’s wit sparkles; he also writes from the point of view of impossibly yet delightfully precocious children, such as four year old Robert who, marched off to watch a video, thinks “When you’re a child nobody leaves you alone. If he ran away now, they would send out a search party and entertain him to death.” And despite his character’s haplessness around women, the author’s observations are sometimes so dead on that I can forgive him almost anything: for example, this flash of Patrick’s wife:
“Hello, darling,” said Mary, with that permanently exhausted smile in which her eyes didn’t participate. They inhabited a harder world in which she was trying to survive the ceaseless demands of her sons, and the destructive effect on a solitary nature of spending years without a moment of solitude.”
There’s a final installment called At Last, which I’m about to get stuck into. Watch this space.