Back in 2014 I reviewed Some Hope, published in a volume consisting of the first three of St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992) and Some Hope (1994). Mother’s Milk, was published in 2005 and short-listed for the Booker Prize. I said at the time that I was looking forward to reading it. But now that I’ve got round to it, I found I didn’t enjoy it much at all. I think this is partly the book, and partly me.
The novel begins in August 2000. By this time Patrick is practising as a barrister – though he doesn’t seem to do much actual work – and is married to Mary; they have two small children. (OK, I know August is holiday time.) The first section of the story is told through the eyes of Patrick’s son Robert, who is far more insightful and introspective than any five year old I’ve ever met. Can the birth of his little brother Thomas really cause him to remember what it felt like in the first days of his life? The second section, set in August 2001, is told through Patrick’s eyes. On holiday at his mother’s house in France, he is horrified to see the hold Seamus, clearly a fake healer and genuine con man, has over his mother Eleanor – and her property. But at the same time he is board, listless and self-pitying, and ready for an extra marital affair. The third section is Mary’s story; she devotes herself to motherhood and tries to find ways of dealing with Patrick’s infidelity. The fourth section, set in August 2003 has no particular protagonist; the family travel to America.
The book continues in the style set in the first three books; it is a clever diatribe against the fatuousness, snobbery and malice of the English upper class. St Aubyn’s ear for dialogue and his biting wit are as sharp as ever, as you can see in one of my favourite exchanges. A child has been bullying Robert; his mother offers a kind of apology. ‘I’m sorry about that … Eliot is so competitive, just like his dad, and I hate to repress all that drive and energy.’ ‘You’re relying on the penal system for that,’ Patrick replies. Gold. There is also the continuing theme of the harm parents can do to their children. Both Patrick and Mary fear to pass on to their children the deplorable traits they think their parents gave them, but is there not a danger that in avoiding those, they are passing on others?
So what’s not to like? I found Patrick too self-pitying, too much given to what one reviewer calls ‘spoiled-brat whininess’. Another reviewer, who found the book ‘enjoyable and entertaining’ wrote that ‘we are very much on his side’. But I didn’t feel that way. It’s true he is highly self-aware; consider the following exchange: ‘Oh, darling,’ said Julia, resting her hands on Patrick’s shoulders, ‘are you your own worst enemy?’ ‘I certainly hope so,’ said Patrick. ‘I dread to think what would happen if somebody else turned out to be better at it than me.’ This can be perversely amusing, but it’s highly artificial and makes me want to shake him. Ultimately I don’t care what happens to him. Obviously the reader doesn’t have to like a character, but being indifferent to them is fatal to engagement with the story.
My reaction to Patrick is perhaps symptomatic of my reaction to the whole book. When I read Some Hope back in 2014 I was still in to mood for acerbic social commentary directed at the English upper classes. Now I don’t find the whole genre funny. After dislocation arising from Brexit in England and disaster of the election of Donald Trump as President in the USA, the worsening effects of climate change and the threat of recession, the boorishness of the upper class doesn’t seem worth wasting time on. St Aubyn doesn’t see it in class terms; he sees ‘a democracy of entrapment. Everyone is trapped in their personality’. True, no doubt, but those people who aren’t the English upper class – that is most of us – are also trapped in an economic system likely to leave us much worse off than the already rich and powerful. Knowing that some upper class people are unpleasant and probably unhappy doesn’t help much. I guess I won’t be reading At Last (2012), the final novel in the set, even if it does resolve some of the issues raised in Mother’s Milk.
St Aubyn doesn’t appear to have a web-site, and has only a very brief Wikipedia entry. But you can find out much more about him, and how his fiction mirrors his life, in any of these three interviews, here, here or here.