By Edward St Aubyn
We first meet the relatively well-heeled Melrose family at the birth of eldest son, Robert, (although readers may already be aware of them from St Aubyn's other books featuring Patrick Melrose). Unusually, the episode is described from Robert's point of view. The scene is eventually revealed as Robert's memory, one of many he finds himself considering, "feeling his infancy disintegrating", after the birth of his brother, Thomas; age five, Robert is already as obsessed with his past as his troubled wreck of a father, Patrick.
The story unfolds over the four painful summers following Thomas's birth. For the first three, the family stay in France at Patrick's mother's house, a place she's donated to a New Age foundation. Patrick fluctuates between despair that he's lost his inheritance, profound loathing for his mother and trying to deal with his lust for a former lover also staying with them. His wife, Mary, hovers "like a dragonfly over the surface of sleep" in case she misses the "slightest inflection of her baby's distress"; and Robert daydreams of solitude while people try to make him play with other children of his age ("Would his father," he considers, "ask a woman to tea just because she was 42?").
This book spits caustic wit and bitter truths about all aspects of parent-child relationships from every other page without once feeling heartless. On the other hand, if you feel alcoholism, drug- addiction, infidelity, post-natal depression and assisted suicide have no place in a novel about family life, you'd best keep well away.
By Rebecca Frayn