This is my review of Never Mind (The Patrick Melrose Novels) by Edward St Aubyn.
In this first novel in the “Melrose” series, we are introduced to Patrick, the five-year-old son of the charismatic but brutal David Melrose. Such is the narrator’s power that I felt the urge to tear through the page to save this poor little boy from the daily torture and abuse meted out to him by a man who had probably been damaged in the same way and which Patrick himself seems at risk of inflicting on his own children in due course.
Although desirable to read the five Melrose novels in order, this is not strictly necessary, as I came to them through “At Last" and “Mother’s Milk”. Since I did not realise they are heavily autobiographical, I rejected them at first for the author’s obsession with the idle and dysfunctional rich, wishing he would apply his striking talent to more worthy topics. The very day I read in “Never Mind” the shocking scene in which David Melrose rapes his own son, I saw Edward St Aubyn being interviewed on the TV by John Mullan, and realised that these books have been a form of carthasis for him, to some extent saving his sanity: he was Patrick. This has entirely altered my view. I note that some reviewers condemn the "shock factor" of the rape scene, perhaps unaware that something like it really happened to the author, traumatising until he could find some outlet through writing about it.
The author’s capacity to put thoughts into words with such apparent ease, bending them to fit the most complex thought and make it clear is remarkable. What is at times profoundly sad is made bearable by his razor-sharp and caustic wit. I like the brevity of the book which ends unexpectedly, leaving you wanting more of the addictive prose. On reflection, it concludes with an important insight, comparing the dreams of David and his son.
It may be a while before I can face reading the remainder of the series, because of the sense of pointless cruelty and tragic self-destruction which it engenders. Perhaps the first book, in its novelty, will prove the best, but I recommend this partly for the quality of the writing and partly because to survive such ill-treatment and put it to artistic use merits some kind of recognition. Ironically, as the author turns his skill to less harrowing and personal subjects, he may lose some of his unique edge.
St Aubyn may feel sore over missing the Man Booker Prize for "Mother's Milk". I would argue that any prize should be awarded for the whole series. I also note the plan to make the series into a film, which will suffer from the loss of the searing and brilliant prose.