Fiction - Father and son

William Skidelsky

Published 13 February 2006

Mother's Milk
Edward St Aubyn Picador, 279pp, 12.99
ISBN 0330435892

The English aristocracy has long had a gift for passing on not just dilapidated homes to its offspring but emotional wreckage as well. This grim inheritance was the subject of Edward St Aubyn's semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose trilogy, which appeared - to great acclaim - in the mid-1990s. Here, in three crisp novellas, was a ruthless, funny and only occasionally cartoonish prosecution of a social class. In the first book, Never Mind, we encountered a five-year-old Patrick being raped by his father at the family home in France. Book two, Bad News, trailed Patrick as a heroin-addicted 22-year-old shuffling chaotically between New York, Paris and London in the aftermath of his father's death. Book three, Some Hope, was a more satirical (though no less acidic) affair, set at a party attended by a 30-year-old Patrick and featuring a large cast of posh people including, memorably, Princess Margaret.

Not long after I read the trilogy, I met someone who vaguely knew St Aubyn. "Ah yes, Teddy," I remember him say-ing. "Became a heroin addict because he was buggered by daddy." The implication of this remark was obvious: proper men take that sort of thing on the chin, and don't resort to such easy routes out as drug taking (and, indeed, novel writing). But what if you do "take it on the chin"? What sort of person are you then likely to become? By book three of the trilogy, a now drugs-free Patrick had achieved some understanding of the role they played in his life: "As his struggle against drugs grew successful, he saw how it had masked a struggle not to become like his father. The claim that every man kills the thing he loves seemed to him a wild guess compared with the near certainty of a man turning into the thing he hates."

If your dad is the kind of person who rapes his own son, the struggle to avoid becoming like him assumes great importance when you yourself have children. Mother's Milk picks up the action some 15 years later. Patrick, now in his forties, is a barrister. He is married and has two young sons. His life is not a complete disaster, but neither is it going very well. He drinks more than he should and complains obsessively about his slowly dying mother, who has signed the family house (and with it Patrick's inheritance) away to a money-grubbing New Age guru. His wife, Mary, has stopped wanting to sleep with him, for which Patrick compensates by rekindling old flames and lusting ineffectually after younger women.

Above all he is preoccupied - to an almost neurotic degree - with trying to avoid wrecking his sons' lives. And yet he sees only too clearly that this carries its own dangers: "Even if he was an affectionate father, even if he wasn't making the gross mistakes his parents had made, the vigilance he invested in the task created another level of tension, a tension which Robert [his elder son] had picked up on."

The novel takes place over four summers, and its perspective shifts between Patrick, Mary and Robert. Of the three, Mary is the least interesting: she comes across as strangely lifeless, too submerged in motherhood to be distinct. The attempt to inhabit Robert's head is more successful. St Aubyn wrote luminously about his own childhood in Never Mind, and in describing Robert's life he adopts an in-teresting hybrid adult-child perspective, attributing to Robert thoughts that an intelligent child could plausibly have, while expressing them in language of which he would not be capable.

What Mother's Milk lacks is the sort of gleeful dissection of upper-class life found in the trilogy. Its satire is too often directed against easy targets: Robert's nanny ("the most boring person we've ever met"); a nouveau-riche family the Melroses visit in France. St Aubyn's earlier books contained descriptions of vicious prejudice and snobbery without seeming snobbish or prejudiced. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case here. When the Melroses stay in New York, all they can talk about is how ghastly the place is. They endlessly joke about the "God Bless Our Troops" signs (this is 2003), the "disgusting food", the forced (as they see it) friendliness of the waiters. But all St Aubyn is doing here is mocking what is in any case a stereotype.

The satire in his previous works may not always have been subtle, but at least it had bite. In documenting Patrick's (admittedly partial) escape from the aristocracy, has St Aubyn thrown away his best subject?