Page 1: I’m nearly overwhelmed with anticipation at the prospect of starting such a critically acclaimed cycle. Edward St. Aubyn has been compared with Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, two of my favourite British writers. I am prepared to be dazzled by the prose and rare insights into the human condition, or at least the British condition.
Page 9: Oh dear. Our female lead is eating off the floor. Stylishly, to be sure, but this is not what I expected.
Page 18: We meet our protagonist, five-year-old Patrick Melrose. His parents are as terrifying as any conjured by a horror writer with a bad fever. The writing is luminous, the imagery fraught. Here is Patrick, teetering on the edge of a well. Here are snails being crushed underfoot. Brutality lurks at the edges of everything.
Page 30: Ominousness practically sweats off the pages. The characters, with the exception of young Patrick and the American, Anne, are among the least likeable I’ve ever read. But the descriptions! “When he tried to smile, his purplish lips could only curl and twist like a rotting leaf thrown onto a fire.” Worse: He had “a face like a crème brûlée after the first blow of the spoon, all covered in little cracks.” The English upper classes are depicted as entirely loathsome, particularly Patrick’s alcoholic, pill-popping victim of a mother and his sadistic failure of a father. These are indeed “monsters of English privilege”.
Page 67: I wish I could have the scene I just read surgically excised from my mind. What is St. Aubyn playing at, writing such heartbreaking filth? I must take to my bed to recover. But first I’ll look up St. Aubyn on the computer to glean clues to his motivation.
This book is semi-autobiographical. Never mind me and my sensitivities.
Page 99: The slender volume, which consists of conversations, escalating scenes of abuse, and a singularly vicious dinner party, is also a bleak masterpiece.
Page 135: The news is not all bad. Patrick’s father is dead (long may he burn). Oh, but poor Patrick! He’s 22 and in terrible shape. Small wonder. I fear for him on his trip to New York to view his father’s body.
When I was a teenager I thought very rich British boys with drug problems were the absolute pinnacle of desirability. I have revised my opinion.
Page 151: He’s been directed to the wrong memorial service. It’s wrong to laugh, but St. Aubyn is killing it. This novel is another high-wire act.
Page 169: David Foster Wallace wrote with breathtaking skill about recovery, but has anyone ever written so well about addiction? Example: “Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break … It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon.”
Page 172: The dealer who spent 10 years believing he was an egg is my new favourite minor character in fiction. Also, one has to reluctantly admire the effort and innovation required to be a severe drug addict. From a distance, mind you.
Page 297: It is a testament to the skills of St. Aubyn that he can make such a wretched and enslaved character as Patrick Melrose at 22 compelling, funny, and deeply sympathetic. It is a testament to the human spirit that a person who lived through a childhood like St. Aubyn’s has turned viciousness and despair into art and written an unforgettable chronicle, one of the great debauches in New York.
Has anything been more overdue than some hope in the work of Edward St. Aubyn? If you’ve made it through Never Mind and Bad News, you crave some hope a bit like Patrick craved heroin in the previous novel—“like wanting to get out of a wheelchair when the room was on fire.” This book introduces us to Patrick at 30. He is—praise be—clean and sober. He’s healing, after a fashion. The novel follows Patrick and a large cast, many of whom we remember from the previous books, as they prepare for a party. They are almost all ghastly. The monsters of English privilege remain monsters intent on eating one another, and yet the odd character emerges from the decadent fray, disfigured and battle-scarred but with a searing humanity intact.
Edward St. Aubyn. Genius. Patrick Melrose. One of the new touchstones in modern literature.