Paperback of the week


Argue with mother



Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk depicts an upper-class world lacking in niceties


Alex Clark

Sunday January 7, 2007

The Observer


Mother's Milk

by Edward St Aubyn

Picador 7.99

A novel that chiefly consists of upper-middle class people being unpleasant to one another may not be your bag, in which case, you should probably avoid Mother's Milk. For everyone else, remember that one of the novel's most telling moments comes when Patrick Melrose tells his wife, Mary, that 'acrimony is all we've got left', and plough on regardless.

In fact, most of Patrick's acrimony bypasses his wife - though he's fed up enough that motherhood has curtailed both her libido and her capacity to indulge him - and makes straight for his mother, Eleanor. 'She was always a lousy mother,' he notes acidly, appraising her decision to leave the family's grand house in the south of France to a bunch of shamanic charlatans, 'but I thought she might take a holiday towards the end of her life, feel that she'd achieved enough by way of betrayal and neglect, and that it was time to have a break, play with her grandchildren, let us stay in the house, that sort of thing.' Waiting in the wings to set him off again, should a bile-free moment occur, is Seamus, keen to expand his 'Transpersonal Foundation' even if it means Patrick has nowhere to unpack his shoes.

Everyone is pitiable in Mother's Milk - raging Patrick, enfeebled Eleanor, harassed Mary, even the novel's semi-comprehending but powerless children - but St Aubyn complicates the issue of whether or not they engender our sympathy by investing the narrative with powerful and painful quantities of self-knowledge and gallows humour. Patrick, in particular, spends most of his time locked in a desperate mediation between his loathing of others and his loathing of himself, which will come as little surprise to those who first encountered him in the trilogy Some Hope. What would make him - or any of the others - happy remains obscure; salvation more than probably doesn't, St Aubyn suggests, lie in the vapidity and vagueness of Eleanor's new-age witterings.

Stuck in the material world but revolted by their materialism, unable to find comfort in kin or kindness, his characters are stranded in the bleak and unforgiving landscapes of their own heads. Not a nice place to live - but not bad for readers to drop in on.