No use crying

This is my review of Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn.

How could I have left this book to languish on my shelf for years before reading it? At first, I was bowled over by the sharp, witty prose, striking descriptions and amusing dialogue. This short novel follows the trilogy "Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope" about tensions within a dysfunctional upper middle class family, the Melroses. "Mother's Milk" can stand alone, but the books are probably best read in sequence, ending with the recently published "At Last".

Mother's Milk has an unusual opening, with a small boy (Robert) "remembering" the trauma of being born, the sense of insecurity in the "new world" outside the safety of his mother's womb. Or has the birth of his younger brother (Thomas) caused him to imagine all this? At any rate, it is interesting to be prompted to question just what a small child remembers from the beginning of life, before it is swamped by other impressions. Robert is, of course, ludicrously precocious and implausibly articulate. His cynical, upper middle class barrister father (Patrick) may have had a hand in this.

When the story moves on to the viewpoints of Robert's parents, my enjoyment wavered. All the characters begin to appear to be caricatures, so that you laugh often, but are rarely moved. The apparent reasons for Patrick's drunken mid-life crisis do not evoke huge sympathy. Although it must be frustrating that his do-gooding mother has disinherited him in favour of a half-baked "Transpersonal Foundation", Patrick still seems to be quite well off. His wife Mary's preoccupation with her new baby, possibly a reaction to her own mother's neglect, may get a bit wearing at times but does not really justify his infidelity with an old girlfriend. If you have read the earlier novels, the details of the story may make more sense. As it is, there is a little too much condensed "telling" of past events, rather than gradual "showing".

You may argue we are not meant to take it all too seriously but rather to enjoy the comical situations, laugh aloud at the humour and be stopped short by the occasional telling insight. Yet, there is an underlying sense of bleakness, so it came as no surprise to read in a review that Patrick is modelled, if loosely, on the author, who freely admits that he was raped by his father, rather as Patrick, it seems, was abused in the first novel, "Never Mind".

Yes, the attitude to old age in this book often seems cruel and lacking in empathy. Yes, the writing is rather crudely anti-American. You could also say it is truthful, if one-sided. My main criticism is that the plot is thin and developed rather carelessly, with missed opportunities to create to develop scenes.

Despite this, St Aubyn is clearly a very talented writer.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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