‘“What else is there to do but read too much into things?” said Patrick breezily. “What a poor, thin, dull world we’d live in if we didn’t. Besides, is it possible? There’s always more meaning than we can lay our hands on.”’
At some point, in what sounds like a distinctly chequered life-thus-far, Edward St Aubyn must have swallowed the entire psychoanalytical canon. He loves to “read too much into things”; he revels in psychologies. From Freud through to Lacan, from the oedipal complex to oral fixation to the “mirror stage”, it’s all here in his most recent Booker long-listed novel Mother’s Milk. The title says it all. Its plain surface meaning sets us up for a narrative about parenting and childhood, while its sub-textual Freudian connotations suggest substance abuse and emotional dependency not to mention regression and a poverty of the self. And you might remember that when I mused on the Booker a while ago I feared that the things on the cover of my hardback were slices of breast? Well, the sleeve assures me they’re actually figs…but I remain convinced they’re meant to evoke breasts, cross-sectioned and rosy with mammary glands. Surface = figs; sub-image = dissected flesh. Such double-layered-ness thoroughly pervades the novel, so much so that sometimes I struggled to find a comfortable level at which to read.
Ostensibly, it is the simple story of the Melrose family – Patrick, a decaying alcoholic, Mary, his self-abnegating wife and their children, the precocious Robert, aged five, and the oblivious baby Thomas – told over the course of four summer holidays between 2000 and 2003. Each year the Melroses spend their long August at Saint-Nazaire, Patrick’s mothers’ idyllic chateau in the south of France, although in more recent times they have had to share it with her New Age community: the Trans-Personal Foundation. Dominated by Seamus, a care nurse turned “shaman”, the estate quickly becomes the nexus of the books' surface crisis: Eleanor Melrose’s decision to disinherit her son and leave everything to her “charity” in a coup d’etat of spiritual altruism over family loyalty. Her “betrayal” becomes increasingly clear as she deteriorates towards death and circumstances force upon Patrick (himself a barrister) the onerous task of legally finalising his own impoverishment. Meanwhile Mary, his wife and once his saviour, has “left him” for their new son Thomas, shying away from the conjugal bed and allowing herself to be utterly consumed by her childrens’ needs and her domestic duties. Patrick is forced into seeking sex and comfort (or, if we like, the breast and it’s milk) elsewhere – with an old girlfriend and at the bottom of a bottle. Put simply then: Mother’s Milk is a study of the decline and fall of a family’s fortunes. But while the central event is material, the resultant fallout is wholly psychological. Alternately narrated by each family member in eloquently confused and muddled voices, the book focuses entirely on individual emotional experience/response. Which is where the psychoanalysis really comes in to its own…
The novel is about disinheritance and displacement in more ways than the clearly obvious. Robert opens proceedings with the perfect Freudian question: “Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born?” He remembers his birth as a kind of dying – his head banging again and again against his mother’s closed cervix; his umbilical cord twisted around his throat; the clamps that grabbed his head and wrenched him from side to side. But more importantly he sees it as a key moment of separation in which he was “taken away from his mother”:
“…they were not together in the way that they used to be… 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…he used to think he lived at the heart of things. Now the walls had tumbled down and he could see what a muddle he had been in.”
He is inspired into “remembering” these feelings by the arrival of his brother, Thomas, who makes him feel even further separated and displaced from the only woman he has ever loved: “His infancy was being obliterated… He wanted it back, otherwise Thomas would have the whole thing.” In the usual way of things he fantasises about killing his new sibling, or about convincing his parents to “send him back”; he cannot understand his role in the family now that he is no longer the designated “baby”. Tellingly, when asked what he wants for his dinner at a party he responds before he can mediate his feelings: ‘“I want what Thomas is having.”’ – i.e. breast milk. All this is textbook stuff – you can read all about it in Juliet Mitchell’s brilliant book Siblings – and, just as he should, Robert finally comes to terms with his brother by realising that a) his consciousness is a separate and inviolable thing, and b) that he has extraordinary power and influence over Thomas:
“Robert looked down at Thomas, slumped in his chair, starring at a picture of a sailing boat, not knowing what a picture was and not knowing what a sailing boat was, and he could feel the drama of his being a giant in comparison to this small incompetent body.”
Similar moments of infantile predicament pattern the book and seem to sit very near its core. Patrick Melrose experiences an analogous catastrophe of the self after Thomas’s birth, when Mary finds it impossible to divide her attention equally between her son and her husband:
“…a former beneficiary of Mary’s maternal overdrive, he sometimes had to remind himself that he wasn’t an infant anymore, to argue that there were real children in the house… Nevertheless, he waited in vain for the maturing effects of parenthood.”
For him the resolution is wholly more painful and complex, and is preceded by a long period of dependency on sedatives and alcohol, during which he knowingly berates himself for being a bad father and for emulating his own parents in his solipsism.
Contrarily, in Mary’s case it is not that she has experienced her moment of separation but that she cannot bear to. Knowing that Thomas is her last child, she clings to the almost supernatural bond that exists between them:
“Mary had been a devoted mother to Robert, but after the absorption of the first year she had resurfaced as a wife…. With Thomas, perhaps because he was her last, she seemed to be trapped in a Madonna and Child force field, preserving the precinct of purity, including her own rediscovered virginity.”
She sees that this is terribly destructive and dreams of returning to a normal life – a sex life, a personal life, to being “Mary” in something other than the biblical sense – but she also understands that it is Thomas that makes “Mary” into something special, a superhuman force of nature that provides and provides without tiring. She understands that no one will ever look at her or reach for her in the way that Thomas does in his babyhood; she is addicted to being the milk-mother – the source of all the best nutrients and the best love. Alienation and the overwhelming desire for connectedness come to shape the Melroses’ psychic lives.
It’s clear that St Aubyn is obsessively interested in how these needs create and damage families throughout the generations. Both Mary and Patrick have been spoiled by their own relationships with their parents. Mary’s mother, the bizarrely named Kettle, is a feckless socialite incapable of nurturing her daughter and Eleanor Melrose can’t bond with the son she means to dispossess. Her stroke, which returns her to a state of communicative infancy, embodies this reality: all she can do is give away everything he wants, including his sense of family identity and belonging. But then, in one of his brilliant vitriolic monologues, Patrick unwittingly reveals that Eleanor is only playing out the mistakes that her own mother and stepfather made with her. The burden of familial baggage is inescapable and St Aubyn seems to envision a vast and unholy network of betrayals and misunderstandings born out by the inevitable impact of childhood trauma on adult lives. Trying to compensate for them as Mary does with Thomas only creates new and different problems. Mother’s milk poisons even as it sustains; psychoanalysis is the only way we can riddle it out and find meaning from it.
I suspect that such doom-and-gloom bitterness and such psychological determinism, sounds terribly depressing – not the stuff that enjoyable novels are made of. Yet, strangely, Mother’s Milk proves entertaining, partly by virtue of its narratorial quirks and partly because of St Aubyn’s thoughtful prose. The structure, which skips from first-person to first-person in a scheme that runs Robert/Patrick/Mary/ Robert/ Patrick/ Mary/ Thomas, works very well, offering fresh perspectives on successive summers at Saint-Nazaire and working in ironies. St Aubyn is amused by the idea that each family member has a different central drama – their own – only supplemented by "subplots" revolving around their family members. On finding Robert giggling in bed with his mistress’s young daughter, for example, Patrick exclaims: ‘“This is the most outrageous subplot”’. Robert balks at the idea of being a character in someone else’s life play:
‘“What’s a subplot?” asked Robert.
“Another part of the main story,” said Patrick, “reflecting it in some more or less flagrant way.”
“Why are we a subplot?” asked Robert.
“You’re not,” said Patrick. “You’re a plot in your own right.”’
All of the characters are vitally concerned with their authenticity and with verifying that they themselves exist and are who they think they are. St Aubyn writes with astonishing clarity about the resultant cacophony of feeling, thinking and seeing without ever really devolving into psychobabble. And although his particular take on the patterns and modes inherent in family life might not suit every reader, he renders them with a spareness of sympathy. His narrators might be hopelessly pathetic but they’re also understandable, recognisable even.
There is his humour to consider too, since Mother’s Milk is often a funny novel. There is Margaret, the hefty maternity nurse who accompanies the family on holiday after Thomas’ birth, and who reduces the family to rancorous sarcasm with her lectures on baby care and motherhood. There is Jo, the perky nanny who wears a T-shirt with the slogan “Up for It” and misunderstands Robert’s solitary nature as a signal of parental neglect (the very opposite of the truth: it is the result of parental suffocation!) Most wonderfully there is Seamus, who may or may not be a conman after Eleanor’s money. Either way he has thoroughly internalised the New Age rhetoric he peddles to spirit-starved city dwellers, constantly suggesting rituals, cleansing ceremonies and past life regressions as the panaceas of all ills. Indeed, he is writing his own book during the course of the novel and seeks Mary’s help in titling it:
‘“I’ve got so many ideas, it’s just getting them down. Do you think Drumbeat of the my Heart or Heartbeat of my Drum is better?”
“I don’t know,” said Mary. “It depends which one you mean I suppose.”
“That’s good advice,” said Seamus.’
There is only one caveat to all of this: the flawed final “August” of the novel in which Patrick is forced to transfer the family holiday from France to America. Here St Aubyn paints us a United States of stereotype – the ur-land of impersonal materialism (look at the huge cars!), indulgence (food portions the size of ships!) and imperial militarism (guns, guns everywhere!) – and in doing so looses much of the subtlety of the earlier sections. Certainly he shows the Melroses up to be the snooty upper-middle-class British snobs that they really are, but I doubt this was his purpose – it’s difficult to decide who comes off best from the comparison.
My advice: Best steer clear of current political comment Edward, it doesn’t suit you.
You will likely have heard by now that the Guardian First Book Award Longlist has been announced. More food for this particular prize junkie…and I’m thrilled to discover that I’ve read 3 (nearly 4) of them already. (Links are to my entries.)
- Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allen
- Running for the Hills by Horatio Clare
- In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
- Waiting for the Night-Rowers by Roger Moulson
- Lonesome George: The Lives and Loves of a Conservation Icon by Henry Nicholls
- A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveller by Jason Roberts
- Donne: The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs
The list absolutely screams Guardian! Both Lorainne Adams’ Harbor and Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men are hard-hitting, politically relevant and Liberal; they’re also excellent and certain to be overlooked by the mainstream prizes, which rarely honour ardently political novels. That is understandable I suppose – a book award isn’t a pulpit - but the Guardian should have no such qualms. They’re unabashedly liberal already and that’s why we love them so much. I am disappointed not to see Naomi Alderman's Disobedience on there. Did you read it judges?
I’ve already got a hold on Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan, the only one of the books I haven’t read which my central library has in stock... And I’m toying with checking the Donne biography out from the university library, but I probably won’t have time to engage with it what with my thesis deadline looming in 3 weeks time and job-hunting to be done. No rest for me.