BOOK REVIEW / What a swell party that was: Some hope - Edward St Aubyn: Heinemann, pounds 13.99

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The Independent Culture
LIKE everyone else, Edward St Aubyn writes about what he knows - childhood, sex, parties, heroin. His three autobiographical novels have dealt with life among the unpleasantly rich, tracing the unsteady progress of Patrick Melrose from traumatised childhood (his father buggered him for several years from the age of five), through bitter years of drug addiction to his present desire for some kind of respite. At 30 he feels 'worn out by his lifelong need to be in two places at once: in the body and out of the body, on the bed and on the curtain-pole, in the vein and in the barrel, one eye behind the eyepatch and one eye looking at the eyepatch . . .' The bleak view of mankind of the earlier books is milder here, and there is even, as the title suggests, a glimmer of hope ahead, some sort of lightening of the skies.

Much of the book is given over to satirical descriptions and rather old-fashioned social comedy - short scenes at a very grand party in which are displayed the grotesque snobberies of Patrick's father's set. St Aubyn records their vacuous conversation ('No man is an island - although one's known a surprising number who own one. Really a surprising number, and not just in Scotland') with the same accuracy as he notes the jargon of Narcotics Anonymous ('dysfunctional family', 'parenting the child within'), in both cases carefully charting the gap between appearance and reality. From time to time, he employs a baroque image that seems to have come from a more elaborate novel: 'the hairdresser arrived at twelve-thirty to rebuild those cliffs of grey hair against which so many upstarts had dashed themselves in vain'. And he even risks the occasional, unexpected touch of pathos: the death of an old socialite; Patrick's recollection of his father's last tormented years; the recurring image of a small child at the mercy of the grown-ups.

Some Hope is a short, rather shortwinded novel which veers precariously between being too self-indulgent and too cynical. But it is powerful in places, elegantly organised and often very funny. Among its successes must be counted a startlingly cruel, very thorough portrait of Princess Margaret, who is a guest at the party:

'She pushed her plate away and picked up her cigarette lighter. 'I get sent fallow deer from Richmond Park', she said smugly. 'You have to be on the list. The Queen said to me, 'Put yourself on the list,' so I did.'

'How very sensible, ma'am,' simpered Sonny.'