Saturday, July 31, 2010

St. Aubyn adds another chapter to the harrowing story of Patrick Melrose

Having enjoyed Some Hope, St. Aubyn’s trilogy of abuse and recovery, I was eager to see what this follow-up novel would offer. The story concerns Patrick Melrose yet again, but now he is the husband-father in a family of his own. Here the usual brutal relations of family life are writ large, and, what is more, St. Aubyn makes us care deeply about the structure of family itself.

Mother’s Milk

Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk (235 pages, Open City Books, $14) takes up with Patrick Melrose some twenty years after the close of Some Hope. We left Patrick there in tentative recovery, with the hope that he might be able to put his life back together.

In Mother’s Milk, we see that he has made a lot of his life. He has a wonderful wife, Mary, and two amazing sons, Robert and Thomas. When the novel opens, in fact, we are swept into young Robert’s five-year old mental world, as he recalls what it was like to be born. This in itself would be a fictional tour-de-force, but because we are reading St. Aubyn, that almost miraculous recreation of the past also serves to delineate both the jealousy and the hatred Robert feels for his infant brother Thomas, now that Thomas has displaced him in his adored mother’s affection.

We follow the family through successive August holidays, first in the house in southern France, which also figured in Some Hope. Patrick imagined that he would inherit the house from his often frustrating and distant mother, but true to form, and true to the family tradition if disinheritance, she has decided to leave the house to the perfect sham of an Irish shaman, who has persuaded her that he has guided her onto another plane.

Patrick is raging—he rages through most of the novel—with how unfair this is, and he makes this known to both his mother and to Seamus, the shaman that he thinks has duped her. This does nothing to alter his mother’s decision, and among poor Patrick’s frustrations is his having to negotiate the transfer of property.
As summers tick by, the house gradually does change hands; Patrick starts drinking again—or perhaps it’s just that he intensifies the drinking that he has been doing all along—and he takes a mistress. Why should he not, he reasons to himself, when his wife remains so preoccupied with her youngest son.

As the story slowly disinherits Patrick from his birthright, we also watch the family grow. Robert is a wonderful character, and we readers can be forgiven for hoping that we will be treated more and more frequently to his uncannily penetrating understanding of the world, and of family relations.

Thomas is also a wonderful character, also wittier and more verbal that his tiny number of years would suggest, and we follow him with glee as he dashes for traffic or hurls himself from the top of a dangerous sliding board. St. Aubyn is nothing less than brilliant with these young boys, and I could read about them forever.

The true revelation here, however, is Patrick’s wife Mary. What an impressive fictional creation she is. A former loner who entered family life reluctantly now functions as the center of everything. St. Aubyn seems to understand how she feels: about her husband, about her sons, and about the exigencies of family life. She seems to take everything in her stride, but she also keeps them all together.
Once they have lost their wonderful house in Saint Nazaire, the family tries a holiday in America. St. Aubyn has fun recording the family’s shock at American values, and after one horrifying encounter with American jingoism too many—to say nothing of the overstuffed locals, bad food, and faceless freeway culture—they flee back to London, where life is at least dense in a way they understand.

Among the other strains on poor Patrick, who seems at one point on the verge of drinking himself to death, is the slow decay of his increasingly tormenting mother. All she seems to do is hurt him, but as she slips into dementia and physical decay, he finds he has no alternative but to care for her. At a certain point, that care seems to imply that he will help her with a suicidal wish, and that consumes him as the novel draws to a close.

I first thought that I couldn’t stand to watch Patrick slip back into the cavern of inebriation, but St. Aubyn portrays Patrick’s moods—from his rage at Seamus, to his desire for a girl on the beach, to his need for a cigar, and his frustrations about his wife or his mother—so vividly with such care, that they are hard to resist.
Even more amazingly, he creates a family here; but it is a family composed of all these fully realized members. Of course there is tension and discord as they find themselves trapped alone with nothing but their own resources to sustain them, but St. Aubyn makes us care that they survive and that they remain together.

Edward St Aubyn

Mother's Milk available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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