April 21-27 2007 Vol 208 No 3493

Family & other animals

by Anthony Byrt

Edward St AubynÕs acclaimed Some Hope trilogy told the story of the Melroses – a dysfunctional and abusive family of fallen aristocrats. One of them – the drug-taking Patrick Melrose – is back after a decade with a Ņvivid and disruptiveÓ mid-life crisis.

Most nuclear families carry within them the threat of going thermal at some point. Edward St Aubyn is a modern master of the family narrative, and although his earliest books deal with the serious consequences of detachment, abuse and addiction, his latest story of family dysfunction, MotherÕs Milk, teeters more delicately around a moment of meltdown.

St Aubyn carves a vivid and often very funny tale of an intense young family pinballing through four consecutive summers and banging together occasionally. MotherÕs Milk was a close contender for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and many critics have proclaimed it one of the best works of English fiction for several years. Importantly for its author, it is also finding an audience to match such high praise, something his work has long deserved.

MotherÕs Milk sees the return of Patrick Melrose, St AubynÕs most significant invention. PatrickÕs first three appearances came in a series of novellas that were completed by the mid-90s, then collected under the title Some Hope: A Trilogy. It has been more than 10 years between Patrick Melrose stories. On his return, Patrick is in his early forties and in trouble. He works (notionally at least) as a barrister and is married to Mary, the mother of their two sons, five-year-old Robert and newborn Thomas. ThomasÕs arrival leads to a lockdown on marital affection, as MaryÕs panicky desire to be a good mother sees her reject Patrick in favour of the infant. Even Robert feels shut out; he admits to hating his younger brother, jealous of his proximity to their mother, of his closeness to her breast and of his blissful lack of language, which makes the world an unspoilt arena of new sensation and maternal connection.

On top of all of this, PatrickÕs mother Eleanor is decaying rapidly, losing her mind as she nears death. She has signed over her property in the south of France – the place where Patrick grew up and his only chance at a legacy – to an Irish quack-shaman with grand designs for a new-age healing centre. None of this is particularly good news for Patrick, who, facing the double trauma of his wifeÕs rejection and his motherÕs disinheritance, drinks heavily, takes a lot of prescription drugs and embarks half-heartedly on an affair with a former flame.

A mid-life crisis, then? ŅPatrick says at some point during his insomnia, that yes, heÕs having a mid-life crisis,Ó St Aubyn says carefully in the dry, elegant drawl that is often broken by pure laughter, Ņbut then he refuses the idea, because a mid-life crisis is itself a kind of verbal Temazepam, a way of tranquilising the experience by agreeing that itÕs a clichˇ. So, yes he is, but he also isnÕt, because he continues to live it in a vivid and disruptive way.Ó

St AubynÕs microscopic probings into the machinations of family life have their roots in the Some Hope trilogy, a harrowing and violent account of the once aristocratic Melrose familyÕs fall from grace. Its first story, Never Mind, takes place in France when Patrick is a young boy. On the first page, weÕre introduced to PatrickÕs father David, drowning ants in his driveway. The family maid walks past, unsure whether David will stop her for a long conversation, which he is prone to doing when she is, as at that moment, carrying armfuls of heavy linen. He leaves her alone, this time, but almost immediately has a flashback to an evening 12 years earlier, during which he had made Eleanor, his wife and PatrickÕs mother, eat her dinner from the floor like a dog.

David MelroseÕs malevolence is thus established and not long after this, he rapes Patrick. This is the key moment in the trilogy, the act that establishes PatrickÕs behaviour for the next three decades. Edmund White has described David Melrose as one of the great villains of contemporary literature, and with good reason: even after raping his son, he laments not so much the act as the fact that he canÕt find anyone to disclose it to; accustomed to hero-status from his peers, he canÕt think of a single person with whom he can discuss this latest transgression.

This brutal, horrifying comedy is developed in the second novella Bad News, in which Patrick, in his early twenties, is informed of his fatherÕs death and travels to New York to retrieve his ashes. He is by this stage a drug addict and flies Concorde so as not to be sober for too long, and within hours of landing heads out on a drug binge that almost kills him. Somehow though, he manages to return to London with his fatherÕs remains.

The final story, Some Hope, takes place when Patrick is in his early thirties, clean and vaguely contemplating a career in law. He is due to attend a party at a country home in Gloucestershire, with a guest list that includes Princess Margaret. St Aubyn shifts seamlessly through the minds of several vicious snobs before finally dismembering their vapidity with a superb set-piece.

But rather than simply displaying his skill for dialogue, the sequence forms a crucial framework for the rest of the trilogy, illustrating a dehumanisation that is institutional, an integral part of the community that produced the Melroses and families like them.