Once I finished the Patrick Melrose novels, I was absolutely compelled to gulp down At Last. I can’t quite explain the sense of urgency this novel created in me, but at one point yesterday I found myself perched at the kitchen table wearing an apron, reading feverishly on my phone, while a pile of onions sat half-chopped on the cutting board. Believe me, that never happens in my house.
And what was going on to wrench me away from dinner prep? Patrick’s mother Eleanor was being cremated. At last. And Patrick was … well, he was handling it pretty well. Unlike his dreadful aunt Nancy, whose nostalgia for better times she never knew had poisoned every vestige of humanity in her. Or the terrifying Sir Nicholas Pratt, who shared Nancy’s disdain for the contemporary (and the common) but deployed a much larger vocabulary to describe his contempt. In a way, At Last is the funniest of the Melrose novels. Edward St. Aubyn loosens the leash on his satire here while simultaneously digging deeper into Patrick’s psyche and into the horror of his infancy and childhood. In a way, St. Aubyn even turns against his own project, because At Last exposes the “inarticulate” nature of Patrick’s distress. He has to accept that words, his chief defense, are inadequate. Using language to fend off pain is only a delaying mechanism.
My goodness, this is brilliant. As Patrick slowly gropes his way to recognition of his childhood traumas, his father’s old friend Nicholas spews torrents of eloquent nastiness and the demented Fleur provides manic descants — there’s a great deal of talking at Eleanor’s memorial and what’s not meaningless is cruel. Except that near the end, Patrick’s young children speak up with simplicity and kindness, providing both hope and confirmation that Patrick has managed not to damage them. (Which is a real achievement in this family.)
I tend to forget that one of the qualities we look for in novelists is insight. It’s all very well to invent characters and settings and plots, and to describe them with vigor and charm, as St. Aubyn does. I think what kept me enthralled through the Melrose books, though, was his persistent unflinching investigation into Patrick’s pain and the toxic inheritance of familial horrors. “He was free to imagine how terrified Eleanor must have been, for a woman of such good intentions, to have abandoned her desire to love him, which he did not doubt, and be compelled to pass along so much fear and panic instead.” At Last provides Patrick with a more complete understanding of his family and a more searching assessment of himself: thinking about his attraction to suicide, he realizes that “he had only ever been superficially in love with easeful death and was much more deeply enthralled by his own personality. Suicide wore the mask of self-rejection; but in reality, nobody took their personality more seriously than the person who was planning to kill himself on its instructions. Nobody was more determined to stay in charge at any cost…”
In this series of novels oozing with irony, of course there’s an irony in the hyperarticulate Patrick Melrose’s discovery of emotions that must be endured without the buffering quality of speech. There’s a greater irony in the whole story being written with the detachment and style of Edward St. Aubyn. But of course it’s his words that give structure and style to the whole messy saga, and make it irresistible.