Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn (2005) 279 p.
Book four of the Patrick Melrose novels, and Patrick is now a lawyer in his forties, married with two young children. We’ve come a long way from sexual molestation and heroin abuse, but Patrick is still unhappy; the strains of parenthood are impacting on his marriage to Mary, and he finds himself once again slipping back into alcohol abuse and womanising. Meanwhile, his mother is wasting away from dementia in a retirement home, on the brink of signing away the family home in Provence – the last vestige of the Melrose family fortune – to a New Age charlatan.
I’ve seen others criticise these novels on what seems like kneejerk class envy; the travails of a man trying to stop his mother from giving away his immense inheritance, and so on. To me this entirely misses the point. Nothing makes me envy the very wealthy less than Edward St Aubyn. Pain is pain. Suffering is suffering. Patrick is not, and possibly never will be, a happy man.
This should really be the kind of book I dislike – there’s a lot of exposition and a whole lot of sloshing around inside the characters’ unstable minds. But St Aubyn is such a brilliant writer that he makes the whole thing immensely readable. Even the more egregious stuff is forgivable: Patrick’s unbelievably gifted and eidetic five-year-old son Robert who serves as narrator for good chunks of the novel, or the constant (and predictably English) bashing of American society. St Aubyn has a way of crafting almost anything into great prose. These really are wonderful books.