When last we met Patrick Melrose, whose miserable childhood and death-defying twenties drug hell were chronicled with coruscating precision in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: A Trilogy, he had just struck a cautious détente with his past and with the ghost of his sadistic, safely dead father. Sadly, the time-release epiphany glinting in the snowfall of Some Hope‘s final pages has melted away by the start of Mother’s Milk. Now a London barrister, petulant husband and father of two, Patrick discovers that his parental exorcism is only half complete when his invalid mother, Eleanor, entrusts her only child with the legal task of his own disinheritance. Opening in August 2000 and continuing over three consecutive Augusts, St. Aubyn’s caustic, splendid novel probes the slow violence of blood ties—a superbly realized agenda hinted at in the novel’s arresting first sentence: “Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born?”
Thus Mother’s Milk begins, with the birth of Patrick’s elder son, Robert—or rather, with five-year-old Robert’s memory of it, which floods back after the arrival of his younger brother, Thomas. The first section is an exemplum of Lacan-derived fiction, a chewy narrative of the mirror stage and its bewildered aftermath: Robert watches enviously as Thomas breast-feeds, “blending together like wet clay” with their exhausted mother, Mary, and longs to return to his egoless, pre-lingual infant state, before he was burdened with a lonely identity of his own. Pining for his fontanel days in his mum’s arms, Robert is nonetheless Daddy’s boy. Hyper-articulate, a fretful insomniac, Robert gradually adopts his father’s “hatred and contempt for Eleanor and her philanthropic cruelty,” a transformation that Patrick observes with “a mixture of guilt and satisfaction and guilt about the satisfaction.”
As if punning on Mary’s embodiment of maternal selflessness, the zealously charitable Eleanor has decided to bulldoze what remains of her family’s desiccated aristocracy. She bequeaths her money and home in Lacoste (site of her son’s August visits with his family) to the “Transpersonal Foundation” headed by Patrick’s bête noire, the shameless shaman Seamus Dourke. His areas of expertise include “holotropic breathwork,” “soul retrieval,” and other shades of the New Age therapy rainbow that St. Aubyn previously satirized in his comedy of manners On the Edge, which cemented his reputation as a millennial Evelyn Waugh. (Like Some Hope, Mother’s Milk has thick autobiographical roots: The writer is apparently the son of Lorna St. Aubyn, who founded the Le Plan spiritual center in Provence, authored several New Age books, and disinherited her son.)
St. Aubyn renders Patrick’s self-pity as both palpable and revolting—he feels abandoned both by his mother and the “sighing heap of guilt and resignation” that he calls his wife. If the child is father of the man, here the father is a startlingly childish man indeed. While Robert pensively covets his brother’s very state of being, Patrick begrudges the intimacy between mother and infant, as in another of his “did he just say that “outbursts: “And you’re comfortably installed with your lover as usual,” he hisses, as she cuddles up with Thomas. Oddly, the major flaw of Mother’s Milk is its wan characterization of Mary: As mild as the Virgin herself, she’s leached of color and nourishment by maternal martyrdom—in other words, she’s exactly what her often frightful husband decides her to be.
Still bathed in the cold sweat of old nightmares, still punch-drunk with the destructive compulsions detailed in Some Hope, Patrick worries that his supernaturally precocious sons may bear the imprint of his rage and anxiety, which he numbs and irritates with alcohol, tranquilizers, and half-hearted adultery: “He was obsessed, it was true, with stopping the flow of poison from one generation to the next, but he already felt that he had failed.” At kindergarten age, Robert has already “inherited his midnight angst” as well as Dad’s Lacanian grasp on the mournful inadequacy of verbal expression: “In a way things were more perfect when you couldn’t describe anything . . . Once you locked into language, all you could do was shuffle the greasy pack of a few thousand words that millions of people had used before.”
Of course, shuffling that greasy pack is St. Aubyn’s vocation, and here one detects both a self-indictment and a giddy dare. In the astonishing middle novella of Some Hope, “Bad News,” St. Aubyn pushed language to its limits in achieving a lucid, expressionist forensics of pharmaceutical derangement. The first challenge of Mother’s Milk is no less thrilling: to articulate the synesthetic drift of newborn sentience. In charting its viral transfusions of nature and nurture, Mother’s Milk becomes a study in altered states of consciousness, from the wordless bedazzlement of Thomas’s infancy to the terrifying quicksand of Eleanor’s senility, from Patrick and Mary’s shattering sleep deprivation even to Seamus’s mind-expanding “Healing Drum” rituals. None of these people are ever quite themselves. But unhappy families are all alike in their default position, which is to cling to each other. The indelible last scene of Mother’s Milk stitches together solidarity and fatalism, with a wit that stings like disinfectant on a wound.
Jessica Winter is a contributor at the Voice, Minneapolis City Pages, and Time Out London.