The Patrick Melrose Novels is a 680-page omnibus of four works by Edward St. Aubyn, originally published between 1992 and 2005: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. A fifth novel, At Last, was published in 2012. Each book covers a period in Patrick’s life, often only a day or two, spread out over four decades.
In Never Mind, Patrick is five years old and living in France with his British father and American mother. This tightly written novella tells you all you need to know about David and Eleanor Melrose, and it’s not pretty. David is an overbearing, sadistic man; Eleanor and Patrick are victims of his cruelty. Towards the end of the novella, something unthinkable happens, and you know Patrick will be scarred for life. In the following books you can see Patrick trying, mostly in vain, to move beyond this childhood trauma. In Bad News, 22-year-old Patrick has taken to drugs and is constantly in search of his next hit. By age 30, in Some Hope, he has given up drugs (or has he?), and is making an effort to address long-term psychological issues.
Have you seen the amazing “Up” documentary series? Bear with me, there’s a point to this digression. In the documentaries, director Michael Apted visits the same group of British-born people every 7 years, beginning at age 7 (the latest installment, 56 Up, was released in 2012 and will soon arrive in US cinemas — see it if you can). The Patrick Melrose Novels share a similar premise, taken from the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Like the documentaries, each novel gives us a glimpse into Patrick’s life at a point in time. We know little about the intervening period. But the events in Never Mind are like a thread woven through Patrick’s life, influencing everything he says and does, and the man he becomes.
By the time we get to Mother’s Milk, Patrick is 40, married, with children. He’s a devoted father with stable employment. You might think he’s living the dream, right? Well, no. Patrick’s aging mother has pretty much disinherited him by making increasingly irresponsible decisions about her estate. Patrick’s well-being teeters on a precipice; not surprisingly, we see some backsliding into destructive behaviors. The scars from Never Mind have never healed.
When I picked up this book my original intention was to read the first novella and return to the others later. Instead I found myself drawn into Patrick’s story, despite the fact that nearly every character is unlikable in the extreme. The writing is harsh and direct; St Aubyn doesn’t sugar coat the situation in any way. It was all so unpleasant! And yet something kept me coming back for the next installment, hoping to see Patrick in a better place with each passing decade. I did have one quibble with the writing, however. Mother’s Milk is told largely through the thoughts, words and deeds of Patrick’s very young sons. Their voices didn’t ring true; I’ve never met a preschooler who could think or speak in such a sophisticated way.
Mother’s Milk was nominated for the 2006 Booker Prize, and because of that I nearly made the mistake of reading it as a standalone novel. I don’t think you can appreciate it unless you’ve read the three previous books. Perhaps the Booker judges were recognizing a body of work more than an individual novel?