At Last by Edward St Aubyn

Edward-St-AubynThis is the fifth book in Edward St Aubyn’s loose series featuring posh, tormented Patrick Melrose. Its most recent predecessor, Mother’s Milk, was shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize. Mother’s Milk was partly about the perceived betrayal of disinheritance, as Patrick’s mother, Eleanor, handed over the beloved family property in France to a shonky New Age collective.

At Last covers just one day: the day of Eleanor’s funeral. This rite of passage forces Patrick – fresh out of rehab, separated from his wife and sons, and wrestling with sobriety in a Kensington bedsit – to look deeper into his relationship with his mother. Through a series of flashbacks, and through other characters’ observations, Patrick attempts to countenance a process of forgiveness for the dichotomy in her character – that she genuinely sought to do good in her fractured world, but had also willingly used him as a ‘toy’ in her sadomasochistic relationship with her brutal husband.

After a bit of a shaky start, no words are wasted in this elegant book. St Aubyn’s dialogue is razor-sharp, his characters spot-on. The seething resentments and appalling snobbery of Patrick’s remaining elderly relatives and family friends make for highly entertaining reading. His sons’ precociousness strains credulity slightly less in this book, and their genuine questions about life temper the high-concept philosophical musings of his wife’s ex-lover.

St Aubyn’s combination of brittle humour and raw despair sees him likened to Evelyn Waugh and Martin Amis; his prose is impeccable and many of his characters wholly unlikeable. At the core of At Last, however, lie the tired and ravaged heart and mind of Patrick Melrose – and minds, as his son Thomas so wisely reminds him towards the end of the book, are there to be changed. Perhaps, finally, St Aubyn is allowing him to lay at least some of his demons to rest.

Vicky Booth is from CAE Book Groups