From: Max Dunbar's Book Reviews
Date: 16 January 2006
Edward St Aubynís brittle saga reaches an inconclusive end. By Max Dunbar
Itís hard to appreciate Motherís Milk without first reading St Aubynís preceding trilogy, Some Hope. That book introduced the dissolute aristocrat Patrick Melrose, struggling to control his excessive habits against an endless blur of dinner parties. Motherís Milk leaves the social scene behind to look at Patrickís attempt to keep marriage, family and sanity together.
The thing that impressed me about St Aubynís trilogy is that, unlike most family sagas, it makes no concessions to the family. Many novels that span more than two generations seem to treat the family unit with an obligatory reverence thatís reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel. St Aubyn, however, isnít interested in reverence: he wants to explore the limits of these institutions and the ways that people are ruined before theyíre grown.
Some Hope is bookended with dinner parties, and St Aubyn has huge fun with the kind of people who live for dinner parties. Vain, misanthropic, pretentious and self-serving, the conservative chattering class are lined up against a wall and shot down with our narratorís lethal insults. This sounds like a tale of straw men, but it isnít- the figures of Patrickís life are human, full of human failings and absurdities; St Aubyn only needs to let them talk and youíre rolling in the aisles. The narrator is angry, but itís a healthy, vibrant, eloquent anger. At one of these ludicrous gatherings, a French diplomat accidentally spills sauce over Princess Margaretís dress, and Her Highness commands the ambassador to clean it with his tongue- which he does with obsequious vigour. St Aubyns later describes the Princess regaling the party with Ďone of her stories about Ďthe ordinary people of this countryí in which she Ďhad enormous faithí based on a combination of complete ignorance about their lives in complete confidence in their royalist sympathies.í In a lesser writerís hands this would come off as student agit-prop satire. In St Aubynís, it is a moment of exquisite hilarity.
The central tyrant of Some Hope- and its successor- is David Melrose, a failed doctor who feeds off his own bitterness, a man whose sole pleasure in life comes from burning ants with the tip of a cigar. A defining moment of his character comes when he forces his wife to eat figs off a stone floor in front of distinguished guests. After he leaves a dinner party to rape his five-year-old son, David reflects, ĎEven at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards club one couldnít boast about homosexual, paedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favourable reception.í Patrick spends over two decades trying to come to terms with this abuse, and finally, at an identical party twenty-five years later, reaches some kind of understanding, and decides that Ďit must have been even worse being his father than being someone his father had attempted to destroy.í Until this moment, you could have got away with thinking of this novel as essentially a nasty book, empty lives caught in a swirl of misanthropy. Patrickís redemption gives the lie to this notion, but Some Hope still proves that you donít have to like any of the characters to enjoy a good story.
And so after all this energy and dark wit, Motherís Milk feels like something of a letdown, a coda to the trilogy rather than a novel in its own right. The plot range is narrowed to Patrick Melrose desperately trying to prevent his demented mother from selling the family home to a New Age charlatan. Patrickís relationship with his mother is handled sensitively, but not sentimentally. She is seen as entering a second childhood; as Patrickís children learn motor functions, speech and thought, his mother is gradually forgetting all these things, trying to climb back into the womb. It gives you a great image of life as a flame that burns brightest in its centre and tapers off at both ends.
Patrickís wife is insecure and distant, his sons irritatingly (and unrealistically) precocious- Robert spends the bookís opening chapters giving us a wry account of his own birth, and can outargue his dad by the age of five. There is a great pathos in Patrickís growing realisation that he is spoiling his sons with overeducation, setting their expectations so high that they will be unable to cope with life as it is pragmatically lived- in a sense, making the same mistakes as his own father. The eloquence of the Melrose boys fills you with annoyance, then terrible sympathy. While eating a pizza, Robert pines for the good old days of his earlier youth, Ďit was not at all like the delicious, thin, slightly burnt pizza in Les Lecques but somehow, because he thought it might be, he had opened a trap door into the summers he used to have and would never have again.í This kidís eight years old. In his future we see the drug abuse and unstable sex that characterised Patrickís own life. Without knowing it, Patrick is inoculating his sons with his own disillusion, and therefore robbing them of their childhoods.
Thereís the standard namedropping of topical events (ĎBombing Third World countries,í Patrick muses, Ďnow there was an occupation for a man of leisureí) the same lacerating wit and the familiar rollcall of middle-age concerns. Loss of desire, regret for oneís youth, new anxieties about the body- St Aubyn captures all this well, but you get the feeling you might as well be reading The Information. Thatís the problem: this novel is great as a portrait and an epilogue to what has gone before, but it canít stand alone. Itís like the hangover following the Saturday night of Some Hope: well detailed and imagined, but without the former bookís verve and resolution. Youíll enjoy Motherís Milk, but be left with an eerie, languorous regret: the partyís over.
Motherís Milk, Edward St Aubyn, Picador 2006