Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Booker Review: Mother's Milk, Edward St Aubyn


I stayed up last night until I finished this novel - partly because my visiting mother kept pinching the book to read herself whenever I put it down, and partly because I was so dazzled by individual sentences that I really had to concentrate to follow the plot. St Aubyn is a flamboyantly clever writer who made me giggle over and over, but his subject is pain: the pain of maternal betrayal, and the pain of watching yourself re-enact that betrayal in your own relationships.

Much has been made of the novel's inventive opening, a virtuoso prose passage in which a hyper-aware five-year-old recalls the experience of his own birth and infancy. The approach is deliberately non-realistic, but it's not just a gimmick - it works in beautifully with St Aubyn's depiction of the compression of generations and the vital developmental importance of a child's early years.

Of course there were weaknesses - the thinly sketched character of the young mother Mary is one - but the novel is a work of brilliance. Like Hyland's novel, pain here is palpable. My heart was wrenched for both Patrick, the young depressed father, and Robert, his impressionable son. At the same time, like I said, I was laughing at St Aubyn's devastating turn of phrase: after a long, bitter interior monologue, "Patrick ditched his little fantasy with a sarcastic yelp" - that's funny! Intellect is used to craft the novel, but it's never glorified for its own sake. There's a bit where Patrick observes that he consists of a strong intellect, a deep sense of loss and need, and nothing in between - that's sad.

I've decided that I'll metaphorically slap anyone who doesn't love this book. To see it as somehow flawed because it wasn't "realistic" (hello reading group reps at the official Man Booker blog) is to lack either empathy or intelligence. Mother's Milk is beautiful, thoughtful, and stylish. I'll be pretty happy if this one wins.