Tuesday 6 December 2016

Review: At Last by Edward St Aubyn

Picador, €15.20, Paperback

Published 14/05/2011 | 05:00

Two-thirds of the way through Edward St Aubyn's new novel, Patrick Melrose confides to an old friend: "I think my mother's death is the best thing to happen to me since . . . well, since my father's death." He's not kidding.

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Throughout his life, upper-class Patrick has been enduring the effects of his ghastly upbringing. "They fuck you up, your mum and dad," Philip Larkin began one of his most famous poems, "They may not mean to, but they do."

Unfortunately for Patrick, his psychotic father did mean it when he raped and tortured his five-year-old son. Meanwhile, Patrick's mother turned a blind eye to what was going on, devoting herself instead to philanthropic causes for the benefit of mankind.

This has been well documented in four previous St Aubyn novels -- including the Booker-shortlisted Mother's Milk -- and made headlines when the author revealed that he had suffered much the same fate at the hands of his own father.

But St Aubyn is a genuinely creative writer rather than a peddler of misery memoirs and so his elegant, sardonic and often very funny books transcend whatever circumstances led to their making.

At Last, which largely takes place at the funeral of Patrick's mother, Eleanor, and at the party that follows it, is a kind of summing-up of all that had gone before, though with Patrick -- still receiving treatment for his various addictions -- now only fully realising the extent of Eleanor's passive complicity in her husband's monstrous actions.

And regarding her beneficence towards such worthy causes as the Transpersonal Foundation, Patrick reflects that "whereas ordinary generosity came from a desire to give something to someone, Eleanor's philanthropy had come from a desire to give everything to anyone". This meant that "he had often been left alone with his father while Eleanor went to a committee meeting of the Save the Children Fund".

The book is crammed with sardonic paradoxes and elegant ironies. In the depression wing of the Priory that has been Patrick's temporary abode there's Becky, who's "beautiful, available and mentally ill", while he observes of a former lover that "her slightly protruding blue eyes were blank screens of self-love on which a small selection of fake emotions was allowed to flicker".

There's also an old aunt who looks "exhausted by her own haughtiness" and a chauffeur "with the merry laugh of a man who's used to being insulted by his employers".

St Aubyn's prose is a pleasure to read and his insights can be as telling as they're funny. And forgiving, too; indeed, by the end of this book, Patrick seems to have reached some kind of accommodation with his frightful past and current demons.

'Closure' is the term his New Agey, monstrously do-gooder mother might have used, though St Aubyn would snort at such a notion and such a cliche.

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