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Man Booker–shortlisted Mother's Milk, the fourth installment in Edward St. Aubyn's wonderful, wry, and profound Patrick Melrose Cycle, sees Patrick as a lawyer, married, with a five-year-old child and another on the way. The novel shifts points of view from Patrick—furious over his mother's decision to sell their mansion in the South of France to a ridiculous New Age hippie—to Patrick's wife, overburdened by motherhood, to Patrick's mother, growing senile and despondent, and even to Patrick's young son Robert, who reflects with hilarious and disturbing clarity on the moments of his birth.
About the Author
Edward St. Aubyn was born in London in 1960. He is the author of A Clue to the Exit and On the Edge; a series of novels about the Melrose family, including the trilogy Some Hope; and Mother’s Milk, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.
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WHY HAD THEY PRETENDED to kill him when he was born? Keeping him awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix; twisting the cord around his throat and throttling him; chomping through his mother's abdomen with cold shears; clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side; dragging him out of his home and hitting him; shining lights in his eyes and doing experiments; taking him away from his mother while she lay on the table, half-dead. Maybe the idea was to destroy his nostalgia for the old world. First the confinement to make him hungry for space, then pretending to kill him so that he would be grateful for the space when he got it, even this loud desert, with only the bandages of his mother's arms to wrap around him, never the whole thing again, the whole warm thing all around him, being everything.
The curtains were breathing light into their hospital room. Swelling from the hot afternoon, and then flopping back against the French windows, easing the glare outside.
Someone opened the door and the curtains leapt up and rippled their edges; loose paper rustled, the room whitened, and the shudder of the roadworks grew a little louder. Then the door clunked and the curtains sighed and the room dimmed.
'Oh, no, not more flowers,' said his mother.
He could see everything through the transparent walls of his fish-tank cot. He was looked over by the sticky eye of a splayed lily. Sometimes the breeze blew the peppery smell of freesias over him and he wanted to sneeze it away. On his mother's nightgown spots of blood mingled with streaks of dark orange pollen.
'It's so nice of people ...' She was laughing from weakness and frustration. 'I mean, is there any room in the bath?' 'Not really, you've got the roses in there already and the other things.'
'Oh, God, I can't bear it. Hundreds of flowers have been cut down and squeezed into these white vases, just to make us happy.' She couldn't stop laughing. There were tears running down her face. 'They should have been left where they were, in a garden somewhere.'
The nurse looked at the chart.
'It's time for you to take your Voltarol,' she said. 'You've got to control the pain before it takes over.'
Then the nurse looked at Robert and he locked on to her blue eyes in the heaving dimness.
'He's very alert. He's really checking me out.'
'He is going to be all right, isn't he?' said his mother, suddenly terrified.
Suddenly Robert was terrified too. They were not together in the way they used to be, but they still had their helplessness in common. They had been washed up on a wild shore. Too tired to crawl up the beach, they could only loll in the roar and the dazzle of being there. He had to face facts, though: they had been separated. He understood now that his mother had already been on the outside. For her this wild shore was a new role, for him it was a new world.
The strange thing was that he felt as if he had been there before. He had known there was an outside all along. He used to think it was a muffled watery world out there and that he lived at the heart of things. Now the walls had tumbled down and he could see what a muddle he had been in. How could he avoid getting in a new muddle in this hammeringly bright place? How could he kick and spin like he used to in this heavy atmosphere where the air stung his skin?
Yesterday he had thought he was dying. Perhaps he was right and this was what happened. Everything was open to question, except the fact that he was separated from his mother. Now that he realized there was a difference between them, he loved his mother with a new sharpness. He used to be close to her. Now he longed to be close to her. The first taste of longing was the saddest thing in the world.
'Oh, dear, what's wrong?' said the nurse. 'Are we hungry, or do we just want a cuddle?'
The nurse lifted him out of the fish-tank cot, over the crevasse that separated it from the bed and delivered him into his mother's bruised arms.
'Try giving him a little time on the breast and then try to get some rest. You've both been through a lot in the last couple of days.'
He was an inconsolable wreck. He couldn't live with so much doubt and so much intensity. He vomited colostrum over his mother and then in the hazy moment of emptiness that followed, he caught sight of the curtains bulging with light. They held his attention. That's how it worked here. They fascinated you with things to make you forget about the separation.
Still, he didn't want to exaggerate his decline. Things had been getting cramped in the old world. Towards the end he was desperate to get out, but he had imagined himself expanding back into the boundless ocean of his youth, not exiled in this harsh land. Perhaps he could revisit the ocean in his dreams, if it weren't for the veil of violence that hung between him and the past.
He was drifting into the syrupy borders of sleep, not knowing whether it would take him into the floating world or back to the butchery of the birth room.
'Poor Baba, he was probably having a bad dream,' said his mother, stroking him. His crying started to break up and fade.
She kissed him on the forehead and he realized that although they didn't share a body any more, they still had the same thoughts and the same feelings. He shuddered with relief and stared at the curtains, watching the light flow.
He must have been asleep for a while, because his father had arrived and was already locked on to something. He couldn't stop talking.
'I looked at some more flats today and I can tell you, it's really depressing. London property is completely out of control. I'm leaning back towards plan C.'
'What's plan C? I've forgotten.'
'Stay where we are and squeeze another bedroom out of the kitchen. If we divide it in half, the broom cupboard becomes his toy cupboard and the bed goes where the fridge is.'
'Where do the brooms go?'
'I don't know – somewhere.'
'And the fridge?'
'It could go in the cupboard next to the washing machine.'
'It won't fit.'
'How do you know?'
'I just know.'
'Anyway ... we'll work it out. I'm just trying to be practical. Everything changes when you have a baby.'
His father leant closer, whispering, 'There's always Scotland.'
He had come to be practical. He knew that his wife and son were drowning in a puddle of confusion and sensitivity and he was going to save them. Robert could feel what he was feeling.
'God, his hands are so tiny,' said his father. 'Just as well, really.'
He raised Robert's hand with his little finger and kissed it. 'Can I hold him?' She lifted him towards his father. 'Watch out for his neck, it's very floppy. You have to support it.'
They all felt nervous.
'Like this?' His father's hand edged up his spine, took over from his mother, and slipped under Robert's head. Robert tried to keep calm. He didn't want his parents to get upset.
'Sort of. I don't really know either.'
'Ahh ... how come we're allowed to do this without a licence? You can't have a dog or a television without a licence. Maybe we can learn from the maternity nurse – what's her name?'
'By the way, where is Margaret going to sleep on the night before we go to my mother's?'
'She says she's perfectly happy on the sofa.'
'I wonder if the sofa feels the same way.'
'Don't be mean, she's on a "chemical diet".'
'How exciting. I hadn't seen her in that light.'
'She's had a lot of experience.'
'Haven't we all?'
'Oh, babies.' His father scraped Robert's cheek with his stubble and made a kissing sound in his ear.
'But we adore him,' said his mother, her eyes swimming with tears. 'Isn't that enough?'
'Being adored by two trainee parents with inadequate housing? Thank goodness he's got the backup of one grandmother who's on permanent holiday, and another who's too busy saving the planet to be entirely pleased by this additional strain on its resources. My mother's house is already too full of shamanic rattles and "power animals" and "inner children" to accommodate anything as grown-up as a child.'
'We'll be all right,' said his mother. 'We're not children any more, we're parents.'
'We're both,' said his father, 'that's the trouble. Do you know what my mother told me the other day? A child born in a developed nation will consume two hundred and forty times the resources consumed by a child born in Bangladesh. If we'd had the self-restraint to have two hundred and thirty-nine Bangladeshi children, she would have given us a warmer welcome, but this gargantuan Westerner, who is going to take up acres of landfill with his disposable nappies, and will soon be clamouring for a personal computer powerful enough to launch a Mars flight while playing tic-tac-toe with a virtual buddy in Dubrovnik, is not likely to win her approval.' His father paused. 'Are you all right?' he asked.
'I've never been happier,' said his mother, wiping her glistening cheeks with the back of her hand. 'I just feel so empty.'
She guided the baby's head towards her nipple and he started to suck. A thin stream from his old home flooded his mouth and they were together again. He could sense her heartbeat. Peace shrouded them like a new womb. Perhaps this was a good place to be after all, just difficult to get into.
That was about all that Robert could remember from the first few days of his life. The memories had come back to him last month when his brother was born. He couldn't be sure that some of the things hadn't been said last month, but even if they had been, they reminded him of when he was in hospital; so the memories really belonged to him.
Robert was obsessed with his past. He was five years old now. Five years old, not a baby like Thomas. He could feel his infancy disintegrating, and among the bellows of congratulation that accompanied each little step towards full citizenship he heard the whisper of loss. Something had started to happen as he became dominated by talk. His early memories were breaking off, like slabs from those orange cliffs behind him, and crashing into an all-consuming sea which only glared back at him when he tried to look into it. His infancy was being obliterated by his childhood. He wanted it back, otherwise Thomas would have the whole thing.
Robert had left his parents, his little brother and Margaret behind, and he was wobbling his way across the rocks towards the clattering stones of the lower beach, holding in one of his outstretched hands a scuffed plastic bucket decorated with vaulting dolphins. Brilliant pebbles, fading as he ran back to show them off, no longer tricked him. What he was looking for now were those jelly beans of blunted glass buried under the fine rush of black and gold gravel on the shore. Even when they were dry they had a bruised glow. His father told him that glass was made of sand, so they were halfway back to where they came from.
Robert had arrived at the shoreline now. He left his bucket on a high rock and started the hunt for wave-licked glass. The water foamed around his ankles and as it rushed down the beach he scanned the bubbling sand. To his astonishment he could see something under the first wave, not one of the pale green or cloudy white beads, but a rare yellow gem. He pulled it out of the sand, washed the grit from it with the next wave and held it up to the light, a little amber kidney between his finger and thumb. He looked up the beach to share his excitement, but his parents were huddled around the baby, while Margaret rummaged in a bag.
He could remember Margaret very well now that she was back. She had looked after him when he was a baby. It was different then because he had been his mother's only child. Margaret liked to say that she was a 'general chatterbox' but in fact her only subject was herself. His father said that she was an expert on 'the theory of dieting'. He was not sure what that was but it seemed to have made her very fat. To save money his parents weren't going to have a maternity nurse this time but they had changed their minds just before coming to France. They almost changed them back when the agency said that Margaret was the only one available at such short notice. 'I suppose she'll be an extra pair of hands,' his mother had said. 'If only they didn't come with the extra mouth,' said his father.
Robert had first met Margaret when he came back from the hospital after being born. He woke up in his parents' kitchen, jiggling up and down in her arms.
'I've changed His Majesty's nappy so he'll have a nice dry botty,' she said.
'Oh,' said his mother, 'thank you.'
He immediately felt that Margaret was different from his mother. Words drained out of her like an unplugged bath. His mother didn't really like talking but when she did talk it was like being held.
'Does he like his little cot?' said Margaret.
'I don't really know, he was with us in the bed last night.'
A quiet growl came out of Margaret. 'Hmmm,' she said, 'bad habits.'
'He wouldn't settle in his cot.'
'They never will if you take them into the bed.'
'"Never" is a long time. He was inside me until Wednesday evening; my instinct is to have him next to me for a while – do things gradually.'
'Well, I don't like to question your instincts, dear,' said Margaret, spitting the word out the moment it formed in her mouth, 'but in my forty years of experience I've had mothers thank me again and again for putting the baby down and leaving it in the cot. I had one mother, she's an Arab lady, actually, nice enough, rang me only the other day in Botley and said, "I wish I'd listened to you, Margaret, and not taken Yasmin into the bed with me. I can't do anything with her now." She wanted me back, but I said, "I'm sorry, dear, but I'm starting a new job next week, and I shall be going to the south of France for July to stay with the baby's grandmother."'
Margaret tossed her head and strutted about the kitchen, a downpour of crumbs tickling Robert's face. His mother said nothing, but Margaret rumbled on.
'I don't think it's fair on the baby, apart from anything else – they like to have their own little cot. Of course, I'm used to having sole charge. It's usually me has them during the night.'
His father came into the room and kissed Robert on the forehead.
'Good morning, Margaret,' he said. 'I hope you got some sleep, because none of the rest of us did.'
'Yes, thank you, your sofa's quite comfortable, actually; not that I shall be complaining when I have a room of my own at your mother's.'
'I should hope not,' said his father. 'Are you all packed and ready to go? Our taxi is coming any minute now.'
'Well, I haven't exactly had time to unpack, have I? Except for my sun hat. I got that out in case it's blazing at the other end.'
'It's always blazing at the other end. My mother wouldn't stand for anything less than catastrophic global warming.'
'Hmmm, we could do with a bit of global warming in Botley.'
'I wouldn't make that sort of remark if you want a good room at the Foundation.'
'What's that, dear?'
'Oh, my mother's made a
'Is the house not going to be yours, then?'
'Do you hear that?' said Margaret, her waxen pallor looming over Robert and spraying shortbread in his face with renewed vigour.
Robert could sense his father's irritation.
'He's far too cool to be worried about all that,' said his mother.
Everyone started to move about at the same time. Margaret, wearing her sun hat, took the lead, Robert's parents struggling behind with the luggage. They were taking him outside, where the light came from. He was amazed. The world was a birth room screaming with ambitious life. Branches climbing, leaves flickering, cumulonimbus mountains drifting, their melting edges curling in the light-flooded sky. He could feel his mother's thoughts, he could feel his father's thoughts, he could feel Margaret's thoughts.
'He loves the clouds,' said his mother.
'He can't see the clouds, dear,' said Margaret. 'They can't focus at his age.'
'He might still be looking at them without seeing them as we do,' said his father.
Margaret grunted as she got into the humming taxi.
He was lying still in his mother's lap, but the land and sky were slipping by outside the window. If he got involved in the moving scene he thought he was moving too. Light flashed on the windowpanes of passing houses, vibrations washed over him from all directions, and then the canyon of buildings broke open and a wedge of sunlight drifted across his face, turning his eyelids orange-pink.
They were on their way to his grandmother's house, the same house they were staying in now, a week after his brother's birth.CHAPTER 2
ROBERT WAS SITTING IN the window sill of his bedroom, playing with the beads he had collected on the beach. He had been arranging them in every possible combination. Beyond his mosquito net (with its bandaged cut) was a mass of ripe leaves belonging to the big plane tree on the terrace. When the wind moved through the leaves it made a sound like lips smacking. If a fire broke out, he could climb out of the window and down those convenient branches. On the other hand, a kidnapper could climb up them. He never used to think about the other hand; now he thought about it all the time. His mother had told him that when he was a baby he loved lying under that plane tree in his cot. Thomas was lying there now, bracketed by his parents.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mother's Milk"
Copyright © 2006 Edward St. Aubyn.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Author,
By Edward St. Aubyn,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In the style of Martin Amis but with a contemporary edge. Would compare him to A.M. Homes in the U.S.. The husband is literally laugh out loud funny. Reading complaints baffles me! Maybe a slightly tougher skin is needed to get through some bits.
I had high expectations for this book, having been nominated for several awards. However, it was one of the more disappointing books I've read in a long time. This is the story of the Melrose family -- a husband and wife and their two young sons. Patrick Melrose is an immature, self-absorbed supposed psychologist who resorts to cheating on his wife with his ex-girlfriend because he feels neglected. His wife is, arguably, a little overly preoccupied with her sons, but this hardly justifies cheating. The sons, neither of whom ever reach more than seven years old in the book, both talk and act like adults, which I found extremely irritating and downright unrealistic. In a nutshell, the characters are all unlikeable, and the prose is trying too hard to be intellectual and clever, but it just comes off as irritating.
This novel centers on Patrick Melrose, a London barrister, with a wife and two young sons. Patrick remains subject to the whims of his senile mother, who has converted Patrick's childhood home into a New Age retreat. Narrated by turns from the perspectives of Patrick, his wife, and their elder son, the novel vividly captures how the family members' roles shift with the birth of the second son and the deterioration of Patrick's mother. The book starts strong but devolves to be unbelievable and tedious by the end.
the story of an english dyfunctional family told by at one year time intervals by different members of the family. the writing is very good, the characters even the small by are very bright, intellegence and have some insight. i like the writer it is a dark view of family
Starts out being narrated by a very precocious five-year-old named Robert whose position in the house has just been supplanted by a new baby brother. The plot was weird and disjointed. Maybe things get better as you go along, but I just couldn't hang in there to finish it.
Perhaps I don¿t like books which are praised for being humourous. For sure, I don¿t like books which are told from the perspective of children. This book is, at least partly, told from the perspective of a baby, but apparently the baby speaks to us in an adult voice (does that make it funny?). I think it isn¿t even that original to describe your own birth.
Part way through this book I found myself no longer caring that the characters were so unremittingly dreadful and instead realizing that I was probably reading some of the best writing that I had ever encountered. And this writing in turn drew me back to the characters. The writing rendered them fascinating if no less repellant and no more likable. Usually I am trying to connect with character and story, to have them resonate in some transparent way with my own life or my understanding of life, and in finding this resonance, I apply the modern day "liked this, thumbs up" and move on. St. Aubyn asks more and gets more from the reader. I have no idea why he focuses on the tortuous and claustrophobic workings of these mostly irredeemable lives, but he succeeds marvelously in making me want to understand their stories.
Enjoyable book about a dysfuctional upper middle class family in meltdown. Patrick , the father is bitter, unsurprisingly, as his mother has given and will leave the rest, of her not inconsiderable assets, to a new age (possibly fraudulent) foundation leaving him relativly impoverished. Why doesn't he fight this? well he is a lawyer and was manipulated into making the arrangements watertight. His elder son is a precocious 6 year old who narrates much of the book .He has been displaced by his younger brother in the affections of his motherhood obsessed mother.I am not convinced that the child narration works - the child's thought patterns are just too adult for even the most intelligent six year old, and I cannot see anyone disinheriting himself so complteley when he knows his mother has a dementing illness.well written, intelligent and thought prevoking
Interesting read, based around families, generations, babies and parenthood. I thought the pointless envy of a family's squandered wealth quite convincing. Consumption of mother by baby to the neglect of all else, especially the father, was carried to an extreme. The mother's voice was not so well developed as the father's, I found her personality was not there in the same way his was.
Because I'll be hearing St. Aubyn speak at the Hay Festival next weekend, I thought I should read this book which has been languishing on my TBR pile for months. And now I'm not even sure if I want to hear the man speak. I suppose he is a sort of "character" and will be interesting to hear, but this book turned me right off. I understand what St. Aubyn is trying to do here. It's the story of Patrick, a 40-ish man who has been abandoned sexually by his wife Mary to their two infant sons. Patrick's own mother, Eleanor, is leaving her estate to a bogus New Age foundation, and later winds up helpless in a nursing home bed. Patrick starts drinking, has a brief and unfulfilling affair ... the usual midlife crisis stuff. So it's this idea of a man being abandoned by two mothers which, I think, is at the heart of the story. But I can't imagine many readers having sympathy for Patrick who just comes off as a lazy, ungrateful, self-absorbed whiner.Sometimes St. Aubyn's prose shines through, and it's really brilliant - the first chapter, written from Robert's point of view was, in particular, beautiful and moving. But most of the time, it's camouflaged by a thick sticky layer of psychobabble. The novel reads like one written by a clever, witty author whose gift has been diluted by far too many years in psychoanalysis. Being a complete masochist, I may still take a stab at Some Hope, the first book about the characters who appear in Mother's Milk, but a nagging voice in my head is telling me not to bother and to read something more enjoyable instead. How in the world did this piece of self-indulgent bilge get shortlisted for the Booker?
Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn picks up characters from his earlier trilogy collectively titled Some Hope, something I didn't realise until after I'd finished it and began reading some of the reviews.Mother's Milk stands alone perfectly well, but there did seem to be too heavy a burden of backstory (all that history of the loss of family fortunes!) for such a slim volume. Ahah, now I know why.The pleasure of the book lies in its sharp depictions of family life as seen through the eyes of the members of the Melrose family, Patrick, his wife Mary and young sons Robert over four successive August holidays.The first three holidays are spent in Provence, in the house where Patrick, grew up. But the house is soon to be transfered to a flaky new age charity and a charlatan of a shaman called Seamus Dourke, while Patrick is effectively disinherited. His mother, Eleanor, meanwhile, is on her last legs and in a nursing home. But inheritance is about more than property - it's also about venemous anger and sense of betrayal passed on from one generation to the next, and both parents realise that they must break the chain with their own children.I wasn't interested so much in the midlife angst of London lawyer Patrick, which has him seeking solace in the bottle and in an affair with an old girlfriend. But I had more sympathy for Mary, so absorbed into motherhood and its demands that she has nothing of herself to give anyone else.I loved the parts of the book narrated from the viewpoint of the boys. St. Aubyn writes childhood wonderfully, and the opening pages, where the precocious and terrifying observant Robert describes his birth is for me one of the best parts of the novel. (And you can read it here.)The writing is wonderfully witty and sharply observed. There are some wonderfully grotesque small part characters from an utterly incomptent Nanny to rich cousin Henry who turns out to have more extreme views on foreign policy than Rumsfeld and Bush.Another joy is the many memorably acerbic one-liners. (The blurb on the back has a quote from the Sunday Telegraph describing St. Aubyn's "mocking aphoristic style", which says it nicely.) He writes, for example, about obese passengers on the flight, who had: ... the apprehensive fat of people who had decided to become their own airbag systems in a dangerous world.