Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn

INDEPENDENT                                           20 January 2006

(Picador £12.99)

When asked to choose between several equally unappetising quiches at a lunch party, five year-old Robert points to his mother who is breastfeeding his baby brother and says ‘I want what Thomas is having.’ Although his remark provokes general hilarity among the guests, it also points to the two key themes of Edward St Aubyn’s new novel: nostalgia for the comfort and security of infancy and the longing for maternal love.

St Aubyn’s return to fiction after a long absence also sees the return of Patrick Melrose, the protagonist of his trilogy, Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope (now reissued by Picador under the title, Some Hope £7-99). In Bad News, talking to his ‘seating companion’ on a plane (the horrors of air travel also feature prominently in Mother’s Milk), Patrick asserts ‘I don’t think there’s anything more important than being a good dad.’ Ten years later, married to the child-obsessed Mary and with two young sons, Patrick discovers just how demanding fatherhood can be.

The dominant parent in the trilogy was Patrick’s father, the sexually abusive David, while his mother, Eleanor, remained a shadowy figure, either drunk or working for charity in Chad. In the new book, she comes into her own. Having fallen under the influence of Seamus, an Irish New Age ‘healer’, who claims that he and Eleanor were respectively husband and wife and Father Abbot and Mother Abbess in their past lives, she has disinherited Patrick and left her Provencal house to the Transpersonal Foundation which Seamus heads.

Over the course of three years, Patrick, Mary and their sons spend their holidays in Provence with the increasingly senile and put-upon Eleanor. Then, in the fourth year, with the house secure in Seamus’s hands, they head instead for America. The novel has little narrative intrigue and its many pleasures derive less from character development or moral conflict than from the author’s subtle dissection of familial relationships, his rich metaphorical exploration of themes of inheritance and disinheritance, and his exquisite prose.

He particularly excels in the depiction of characters on the cusp of consciousness. The novel opens with a virtuosic portrayal of the moment of birth and the first few weeks of life from the point of view of the baby Robert that rivals that of life in the womb in John Fuller’s A Skin Diary. At the opposite end of the scale, the description of Eleanor grappling for words after suffering a stroke is both measured and moving. Elsewhere, his savage account of Patrick’s alcoholism rivals that of his drug addiction in Bad News.

Above all, it is the precision of the language that impresses. Two extracts must serve for the whole: feeling emasculated, Patrick ‘envied the male spider who was eaten straight after fertilising the female, rather than consumed bit by bit like his human counterpart;’ meanwhile, Mary sees her own tears as ‘a crash course in thenecessary egotism of someone who needed to get a self back in order to sacrifice it again.’

Mother’s Milk is not perfect. The over-articulacy of some of its exchanges belongs more to the world of Ivy Compton-Burnett than to today’s moneyed classes. Likewise, the trip to New York, while offering a welcome corrective to the ‘rain of American images’ in which the rest of the world now drowns, dissipates the novel’s focus. These, however, are minor quibbles, which in now way detract from the pleasure of the whole. For once, the hype is justified. This is indeed ‘the re-emergence of a major literary talent’.