Edward St. Aubyn’s At Last

The fifth and final book in the Patrick Melrose quintet takes place on the day of Patrick’s mother’s funeral. Up to this point, he has survived: being raped and abused, repeatedly, by his father; a lengthy heroin addiction, followed by a milder but no less encompassing alcoholism; marital infidelity – both his own, and his wife’s – and, finally, a stint in a mental hospital’s “Suicide Observation Room.” I have recommended this series of novels to anyone who will listen, but I always feel like I’m doing the books an injustice. “What are they about?” I’m invariably asked, and any way I phrase the reply – child abuse, addiction, depression, the collapse of families – I’m making these books sound gloomier than they really are. If the subject matter is grim, its treated with a sardonic humour, and the narrative arc, from Never Mind to At Last, is, if not redemptive, at least suggestive of the possibility of redemption.

St. Aubyn wastes no time in bringing us up to date on Patrick’s life: he is separated from his wife and the mother of his two precocious sons, living alone in a bedsit, and working as a lawyer. He has successfully kicked his heroin addiction – “as a barrister he was reluctant nowadays to kill himself illegally” – but has fallen prey to “the shattering banality of alcohol.” Like Bad News, which begins with Patrick learning, with elation, of his father’s demise, At Last begins after the death of Patrick’s mother, and one reading of the title – the cynical reading, to be sure – is that, at last, Patrick is free of the baleful influence of his progenitors. “Now that he was an orphan everything was perfect.” He even expresses admiration for “the Oliver Twists of the world, who started out in the enviable state it had taken him forty-five years to achieve […].” If only it were that easy. Spending time in a suicide observation ward makes him realize a grim truth, that “suicide had always formed the unquestioned backdrop to his existence,” poisoning his relationship with himself and other people, and women in particular.

To think of all the things he’d done for a little intimacy, earth flying over his shoulder as he dug his own grave. There were the good women who gave him the care he had never had. They had to be tortured into letting him down, to show that they couldn’t be trusted. And then there were the bad women who saved time by being untrustworthy straight away. He generally alternated between these two broad categories, enchanted by some variant which briefly masked the futility of defending the decaying fortress of his personality, while hoping that it would obligingly rearrange itself into a temple of peace and fulfillment. Hoping and moping, moping and hoping. With only a little detachment, his love life looked like a child’s wind-up toy made to march again and again over the precipice of a kitchen table. Romance was where love was most under threat, not where it was most likely to achieve its highest expression.

These moments of lucidity, when Patrick’s wall of irony and wit crumbles, if only momentarily, offer us some of St. Aubyn’s best writing, and his most tragic. We are witnessing a man recognizing, at long last, that he has been his own worst enemy, the secret author of all his misfortunes, and that the patterns of behavior and thought instilled in him by his parents will survive their deaths and might, should he not be vigilant, continue on in his own sons. The precondition for recovery is his ability to be sincere – with himself, and with others – and yet sincerity is the most difficult mode of being. “It’s the hardest addiction of all,” Patrick says, of irony. “Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.” Shortly after this epiphany, St. Aubyn gives us two more damning revelations about David Melrose, Patrick’s father, as if to remind us how hard Patrick’s task is: first, that David forced Eleanor to deliver their first child at home, rather than in a hospital, and that this infant, lacking a necessary incubator, died two days later; and second, that David Melrose insisted on performing his son’s circumcision himself, while drunk and without the use of anaesthetic. If being sincere entailed giving voice to all of the pain and self-loathing such an upbringing could spawn, who would not seek the shelter of irony?

Patrick’s path to recovery is a demanding one, necessitating that he see both of his parents as human beings – flawed, and no less shaped by their upbringing than Patrick himself – rather than villains. Only then can he forgive them, and only by forgiving them can he forgive himself. As a reader, following Patrick’s journey from abused toddler to drug-addicted youth to bumbling husband and father has been a rare privilege, encompassing five of the finest contemporary novels I have had the pleasure of reading.