(www.smh.com.au/news/book-reviews/mothers-milk/2006/10/06/1159641513193.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1)The Sunday Morning Herald

Mother's Milk

James Bradley, reviewer

October 6, 2006

This searing novel of family dysfunction deserves its Booker shortlisting.

Edward St AubynÕs reputation rests largely on three short novels: Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope. Subsequently republished in one volume as The Patrick Melrose Trilogy, and more recently as Some Hope, they follow the last, gasping stages in the decline of the once-great Melrose family, reduced by the time of Never Mind to the brutal, poisonous David, his American heiress wife, Eleanor, and their son, Patrick.

One part Waugh, one part Easton Ellis, the novels encapsulate all that is essential about St AubynÕs writing: its cut-glass precision, its psychological acuity and razor-sharp wit, its chilling vision of the banality and inevitability of human degradation.

In the first, the five-year-old Patrick is raped by his father, a sadistic, self-loathing monster who makes his wife eat food from the floor in front of guests; in the second, Patrick is a 20-something heroin addict in New York, stumbling from the world of exclusive clubs and hotels inhabited by the super rich to the squalid dives of his dealers; in the third, Patrick, his father now dead, flirts with the possibility of pulling himself back from the edge.

MotherÕs Milk, shortlisted for this yearÕs Man Booker Prize, is a sequel of sorts to the novels comprising Some Hope. Patrick is nudging 40, his heroin addiction replaced by an increasing dependence on alcohol, sleeping pills and anti-depressants, his once lethal sexual attraction faded and blurred by marriage and the stink of failure. His mother - criminally ineffectual when Patrick was five - is dying, slowly and painfully, defrauded of what little remains of her fortune by a conman who has set up a new-age ŌTranspersonal FoundationĶ on the estate in Provence, which should have passed to Patrick on his motherÕs death. And there are now three new Melroses - PatrickÕs wife, Mary, and two young sons, Thomas and Robert.

But despite its links to the earlier books, MotherÕs Milk is both more and rather less than a sequel. Other than his family history (or pathology, which in St AubynÕs fiction is essentially the same thing) the Patrick of MotherÕs Milk bears little relation to the Patrick of Some Hope. It is unclear how one became the other, or how the Patrick of Bad News has been absorbed into the psyche of the at least outwardly respectable barrister of MotherÕs Milk, and there is occasionally something curiously dissociating about the way the characters in MotherÕs Milk seem to echo those in the earlier book without ever quite being them.

In a way, of course, it doesnÕt matter. MotherÕs Milk works perfectly well on its own. It is seldom less than brilliant, either in the quality of its prose or its grasp on character, and fairly crackles with St AubynÕs thrilling wit and oddly affectless moral fury. Its structure and setting are perfectly adapted to his talent for capturing the spilling energy of social situations spiralling out of control.

But in another way it matters a great deal. St AubynÕs world is one where MarxÕs quip that history plays out twice, first as tragedy, then as farce is given painfully human expression. The problem is most acute for Patrick; trapped within the cage built for him by his abusive father and inadequate mother, he observes the cycle beginning again with his eldest son, Thomas. But it is little better for his wife, Mary, whose need to be everything her mother was not is destroying her, or even for PatrickÕs dying mother, Eleanor, whose entire life has been a ludicrous travesty of her own motherÕs.

As psychological determinisms go, St AubynÕs is one of a high order, not least because the actorsÕ awareness of their fates lends it real pathos. But it is a determinism, and, just as with Hardy or Zola, or even Mistry, this lends MotherÕs Milk the hermetic quality peculiar to novels in which the characters are caught in cycles or processes that are out of their control.

In a lesser writer this would almost inevitably be viewed as a failing, but in MotherÕs Milk, as in Some Hope, the quality of St AubynÕs writing transcends these concerns. It is precisely this slightly hermetic quality that lends MotherÕs Milk its poise and pleasure. His vision of genealogy as pathology gives the characters their restless energy, imbuing the writing with a hard-won understanding of the forces of personal history all of us struggle - and too often fail - to overcome.