Mother’s Milk, by Edward St. Aubyn

Purchased from Alibris.com

Welcome to stop two of my three-stage “catch-up” on the life of Patrick Melrose and the work of Edward St. Aubyn. As I indicated in my review a few months ago of Some Hope, the trilogy of short novels that introduces readers to Patrick Melrose, St. Aubyn’s story (the first volume was published in 1992) had escaped my attention. The latest (and one assumes final) part, At Last, is attracting much Booker speculation this summer — readers whom I respect urged me to read the earlier volumes first. The experience has been more than worthwhile; I’ll finally get to At Last in a few weeks but I recommend reading them all.

Perhaps what most struck me about Mother’s Milk is how different it is from the three volumes of Some Hope. I know that is an unconventional way of opening a review of volume two of a trilogy, but the impression is so strong that I can’t resist. The Patrick Melrose of those first volumes is dissolute in the extreme. St. Aubyn introduces him as a child being abused, moving on to describe a country weekend where his parents entertain some truly vapid friends. As a young adult, Patrick turns to alcohol and drugs; a trip to New York to pick up his deceased father’s ashes provides the excuse for an escapade in chemical indulgence that, for me, was reminiscent of John Self in Martin Amis’ Money.

So it was with some surprise that I read the opening of Mother’s Milk, a description of Patrick’s son, Robert, emerging from the womb (“Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born?” is the novel’s opening sentence). The babe’s adult-like perceptiveness continues in an observation of an exchange between nurse and mother:

Then the nurse looked at Robert and he locked on to her blue eyes in the heaving dimness.

“He’s very alert. He’s really checked me out.”

“He is going to be all right, isn’t he?” said his mother, suddenly terrified.

Suddenly Robert was terrified too. They were not together in the way they used to be, but they still had their helplessness in common. They had been washed up on a wild shore. Too tired to crawl up on the beach, they could only loll in the roar and the dazzle of being there. He had to face facts though: they had been separated. He understood now that his mother already had been on the outside. For her this wild shore was a new role, for him it was a new world.

Okay, a newborn, literally only minutes old, is not only incapable of making those kinds of observations, he could not even see the nurse — if you want an author who sticks to the “real”, you’ll want to give St. Aubyn a wide berth. On the other hand, if you are willing to grant licence to substantial diversions from reality, St. Aubyn rewards that by using them to heighten the perceptiveness of his observations not just of the Melroses, but the upper-class world around them.

Robert represents generation three of the family; the abusive elder Melrose may be long dead but his widow is still around, living at the French estate where we first met Patrick in Some Hope. A few pages into this novel, Robert is five years old with a new brother added to the family — he is still precociously perceptive and provides the bridge between the generations that is the central concern of this novel:

His brother was probably floating right now in Robert’s old crib. The grown-ups didn’t know what to make of floating. That was the trouble with grown-ups: they always wanted to be the center of attention, with their battering rams of food, and their sleep routines, and their obsession with making you learn what they knew and forget what they had forgotten. Robert dreaded sleep. He might miss something: a beach of yellow beads, or grasshopper wings like sparks flying from his feet as he crunched through the dry grass.

He loved it down here at his grandmother’s house. His family only came once a year, but they had been every year since he was born. Her house was a Transpersonal Foundation. He didn’t really know what that was, and nobody else seemed to know either, even Seamus Drake who ran it.

“Your grandmother is a wonderful woman,” he had told Robert, looking at him with dimly twinkling eyes. “She’s helped a lot of people to connect.”

“With what?” asked Robert.

“With the other reality.”

There is an undertone of “selfishness” in that exchange, which introduces a trait that is common to all members of the Melrose family and their acquaintances. For a child like Robert, it is just fine since he is learning life’s early lessons — although he already has an ability to do imitations that amuses his parents greatly. And we know from the first volume that selfishness is a foundation element of Patrick’s character, although in this volume the chemical abuse has been replaced with an equal obsession about being a repressed son and husband, the prison of being the “in-between” generation. Robert’s mother, Mary, has the trait in spades as well — with the new baby, she has devoted herself entirely to motherhood and effectively abandoned her husband.

Perhaps the most selfish of all in this novel, however, is Patrick’s mother, Eleanor. A victim in the first novels, in this book she becomes the victimizer with her decision to bequeath the family estate and wealth to the Transpersonal Foundation led Seamus, who trained as a nurse with Irsh National Health but has been adopted by her as a guru for her declining years, despite his obvious self-serving charlatanism.

Patrick was not a sympathetic character in his youth but he becomes one in this book. While he cannot completely overcome his own selfishness, at least here it is devoted to trying to preserve the family estate from the clutches of Seamus and his own mother’s version of self-serving behavior. Alas, his own history has so deeply ingrained the trait (evidenced by the fact that an old flame, Julia, and her daughter are annual visitors to the estate — something his wife hates, but Robert likes) that he is hapless at altruism, even if the motivation is there.

All of this makes Mother’s Milk an intriguing book. While every character is deeply-flawed, the author uses that to establish a depth of dimension that makes each of them credible. And with that in place, their interactions and inevitable conflicts introduce a distinctive version of “reality” that is both entertaining and instructive.

Mother’s Milk was Booker-shortlisted in 2006 — and deservedly so. I’d like to offer my thanks to Will Rycroft from Just William’s Luck who in a comment on my review of Some Hope convinced me that I should read this novel before opening At Last. It was time well-invested and, after a few weeks of rest (Patrick Melrose is both a demanding and depressing character so I need the break), I will be approaching the new novel with some anticipation. Patrick Melrose is one of those multi-novel characters (like Nathan Zuckerman and Rabbit Angstrom) who are special attractions in the world of fiction.

(A note for North American visitors here: Mother’s Milk shows up as “sold out” on NA online sites — I ended up buying an unread new copy from used bookseller Alibris. If you click on the cover image at the top of the review, it will take you to the UK Book Depository site where copies are available — it is worth the effort to get a copy of this very good novel.)

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15 Responses to “Mother’s Milk, by Edward St. Aubyn”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’ve had this on my TBR for ages, same cover and all. I bought it after his Tales of the City was made into a TV series. Looks like I need to source the first in the trilogy before reading this one.

  2. Guy Savage Says:

    Good job I bought a copy already. Yes I’ll get to it by 2020.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa, Guy: Since it took me 20 years to find the Patrick Melrose story, I can hardly take umbrage at others who took just as long — especially since they already have copies of this book. It is worth the delay.

  4. Guy Savage Says:

    I’ll try to get to it sooner than later. No promises. BTW, Barney’s Version arrived.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    I’m mid-way through reading this one — I have a different cover, not as nice as yours — and must admit that the first chapter threw me. I didn’t like the voice of the child, which was far from realistic, but persevered with it. Am glad I did, because it’s a very perceptive book — about family relationships in particular — and am thoroughly enjoying it. I’m hoping to read At Last before the Booker longlist announcement, but my reading time is a bit curtailed at the moment, so am not convinced it’s achievable. (I still want to re-read Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz before reviewing it.)

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: The first chapter threw me as well — it was almost as though St. Aubyn used it to say “this isn’t like the last book, so get used to it early”. While I don’t think the device worked completely, it did succeed in moving me to a different “point of view” when I got to following chapters — so I would have to say that author succeeded.

    A badly-timed Canadian postal lockout (with packages like books held up even when they were legislated back to work) means that I have a tsunami of Booker maybes headed my way — Ghosh, Harris and Ali Smith arrived in the last two days, six more are likelly to show up next week.

    With only two weeks left to read, pre longlist, that’s a challenge. I’m thinking Harris, Ghosh and St. Aubyn — fully expecting that the jury is going to put a number of surprises on the longlist.

  7. savidgereads Says:

    I am on the second of the three novels contained in ‘Some Hope’ which is the first three books in the, erm, trilogy – I do find that confusing. I am bowled away BUT saying that I am having to break them up with other reads (fortunately not too difficult considering that I am mid-way through a huge amount of submissions for the Green Carnation Prize) I like his prose and think the books are marvellous but they do need some space between them. Glad to see the series just keeps on getting better and better.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Simon: As you can tell from my review, I am uncertain whether to describe this project as a trilogy or a pentalogy (yes, I had to look that up). While I did not do it myself, I think leaving some time between the parts of Some Hope is a good idea — they do flow, but approaching each from a fresh point of view would have been valuable. Mother’s Milk was so different from the first three short novels that I am approaching At Last with a lot of curiosity — if St. Aubyn heads off in a completely different direction I would not be surprised at all. (And thanks to those visiting here who have read the new novel and not spoiled my anticipation. Just give me a little more time.)

  9. kimbofo Says:

    Re: the Booker longlist, I’m hoping to see Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright and Gail Jones on it. Jones’ book is certainly the most literary one I have read in a year or more, and yet it doesn’t seem to have received much attention, either by mainstream press or book bloggers.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I have not read the Gail Jones so have no opinion (but will be watching out). I agree with Enright — haven’t seen the Barry yet. My personal favorites would include Linda Grant and (Canadian bias showing up here) David Bezmozgis and Kathleen Winter. My own longshot choice so far is Elizabeth Harris — review to come in a few days.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: And I forgot to mention that the UK cover is more representative of the book than the NA one — although I do quite like it.

  12. William Rycroft Says:

    Thank you for following my advice Kevin and for the mention. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this and can’t wait to read your thoughts on the final chapter of the Melrose saga. Reading your thoughts here has reminded me what a great book Mother’s Milk is, particularly the way in which character’s flaws give them real depth and dimensions and therefore we can still find ways to sympathise with them. Good luck with At Last!

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will: I am sure you can understand why I need a break before returning to Patrick Melrose’s story — I am looking forward to At Last. And thanks again for the advice to take the time to read Mother’s Milk first.

  14. The Time Sculptor's Secret Says:

    I had just been mesmerised by the opening chapter of Mother’s Milk – the birth scene etc – and was about to move on with the book today. Reading this review has persuaded me that I must stop immediately and read all the novels… in the proper order!

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    TSS: Now, that is commitment. Just as I was surprised at the opening of Mother’s Milk, I suspect you will be surprised by the different tone in the first three novels. All of which is a tribute to St. Aubyn’s ability.

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