Mother’s Milk book review
Patrick Melrose is a well-born, forty-something London barrister who, having burned through his inheritance, is now reduced to having to work for a living. Married with two young sons, Melrose is what is commonly called a “survivor”, although his actual survival is frequently in doubt.
As a young child he was beaten and raped by his father; his neurotic, self-obsessed mother kept her distance, both emotionally and, finally, literally, leaving him to his father’s poisonous care in order to go searching for ways to do good for other people. By the time we meet him in Mother’s Milk, he’s a former heroin addict and an off-and-on recovering alcoholic, tempted to jump from high windows and sedating himself with Temazepam to still the voices that torment him.
Patrick is, in other words, a mess. But he is also funny, smart, and hilariously acerbic – much like the author, I suspect. It’s that caustic wit, aimed towards himself as often as the members of his atrociously dysfunctional family, that keeps you turning the pages.
The story takes place during four consecutive Augusts, from 2000 to 2003. In the first part, Patrick’s son Robert is a precociously observant child who increasingly resembles his father at that age. He’s a loner and a scathing mimic, and there’s not much about his parent’s marriage that escapes him. If I was going to find any fault in St. Aubyn’s characters, it would be my skepticism about Robert’s command of the English language. There may be three-year-olds who talk like philosophers and remember the trauma of being born (“awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix”), but I’ve yet to meet one.
Patrick’s wife, Mary, has her own maternal issues. Raised by a cold, withholding mother, she’s determined to be everything her mother was not. To Patrick’s chagrin, she devotes herself entirely to the care and feeding of her sons, in particular the youngest, Thomas, virtually banishing her husband from the marital bed. And while this angers Patrick, giving him an excuse, if he needed one, to indulge in an affair, it also undermines her sense of herself. By nature a solitary person, she’s beginning to feel lost in her roles as mother, wife, and family caregiver – something most women with children feel at one time or another. Unless they’re the kind of mothers generally portrayed in Mother’s Milk: nasty, upperclass women eager to be rid of their offspring.
To be honest, mothers come off poorly in this book. Eleanor, Patrick’s mother, is not quite as cold-blooded or aloof as some of them, but she deliberately closes her eyes to her young son’s suffering, choosing to save her own life over her child’s. She, it turns out, was disinherited by her own mother, who “caved in to the lies and bullying of her second husband” and left him the lion’s share of the family fortune. Over and over again the allegiances shift, leaving children and partners bewildered and resentful. As Patrick notes, the poison flows from one generation to the next. Now that Eleanor is old and sick, unable to walk, almost incapable of speech, she comes under the influence of an opportunistic new-age guru named Seamus. She signs over the family estate in Provence to his charitable foundation, choosing once again to be kind to anyone other than her own son. As Patrick says, “In a beauty contest between her family and a complete stranger, my mother chose the stranger”.
While this is regrettable, let’s remember that Patrick and his family are not by any means rendered homeless. It’s not as though they’re going to have to apply to the county council for a subsidized flat in Hackney. They’re simply less rich than they were, or than they might have been. Which makes Patrick’s self-pitying monologues a little tedious.
But this is natural. As Patrick says, “People never remember happiness with the care that they lavish on preserving every detail of their suffering.”
Having signed away the family estate, Eleanor lets her son know she wishes to die. She asks him to kill her, and Patrick is torn between his loathing of his mother and his reluctance to commit a crime. She persists, and so he arranges to fly with her to Switzerland in order to have an assisted suicide. At the last minute, in the airport, Eleanor changes her mind.
The weakest point of of this book is the beginning, the part narrated by three-year-old Robert. It’s too precious, too precocious. I don’t believe it and I will tell you right now that if I was to meet that child in person I would banish him to his room to write out one hundred times, “I will not be a Royal Pain in the Ass”. The strongest scenes are those like the following, in which Patrick reflects – astutely, considering how drunk he is – on his relationship with his wife:
“He had taken Mary, a good woman, and made her into an instrument of torture, a weird echo of Eleanor forty years ago: never available, always exhausted by her dedication to an altruistic project which didn’t include him. He had achieved this by the ironic device of rejecting the sort of woman who would have made a bad mother, like Eleanor, and choosing one who was such a good mother that she was incapable of letting one drop of her love escape from her children.”
Like Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and A Handful of Dust, Mother’s Milk is satirical view of English upper class society written from an insider’s point of view. The difference being, of course, that Evelyn Waugh was not born an insider while St. Aubyn has a pedigree that goes back to the Norman Conquest. Like Waugh, he aims to portray the speech, manners, and (often loathsome) behaviour of the upper crust, and in doing so he can make you laugh out loud.* These are people who would cut you dead if you met them at a party, but you can’t help loving them in print.
Mother’s Milk, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is the fourth in a series of semi-autobiographical novels: Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope. Together with the fifth book, At Last, they’ve been made into a five-part television series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It was worth getting a subscription to Crave TV just to watch it, but you may be lucky enough to find it in your library.
Ernest Hemingway once said that the best early training for a writer was an unhappy childhood. If he was right, then perhaps St. Aubyn should be grateful to his evil, poisonous father and his faithless, incompetent mother for providing the inspiration for a brilliant literary career.
Then again, perhaps not.
*Check out St. Aubyn’s cameo of Princess Margaret in Some Hope, the third book in the series.