When asked to choose between unappetising quiches at a lunch party, five-year-old Robert points to his mother, who is breastfeeding his baby brother, and says "I want what Thomas is having". Although his remark provokes hilarity, it also points to the two key themes of Edward St Aubyn's new novel: nostalgia for the comfort and security of infancy, and the longing for maternal love.
St Aubyn's return to fiction after a long absence also sees the return of Patrick Melrose, the protagonist of his trilogy, Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope (now reissued by Picador as Some Hope; £7.99). In Bad News, talking to his "seating companion" on a plane (the horrors of air travel also feature prominently in Mother's Milk), Patrick asserts "I don't think there's anything more important than being a good dad." Ten years later, married to the child-obsessed Mary and with two young sons, Patrick discovers just how demanding fatherhood can be.
The dominant parent in the trilogy was Patrick's father, the sexually abusive David, while his mother, Eleanor, remained a shadowy figure, either drunk or working for charity in Chad. In the new book, she comes into her own. Having fallen under the influence of Seamus, an Irish New Age "healer" who claims that he and Eleanor were Father Abbot and Mother Abbess in past lives, she has disinherited Patrick and left her Provençal house to the Transpersonal Foundation Seamus heads.
Over the course of three years, Patrick, Mary and their sons spend their holidays in Provence with the increasingly senile and put-upon Eleanor. Then, with the house secure in Seamus's hands, they head for America. The novel has little narrative intrigue and its many pleasures derive less from character development or moral conflict than the author's subtle dissection of familial relationships, his rich metaphorical exploration of inheritance and disinheritance, and his exquisite prose.
He particularly excels in the depiction of characters on the cusp of consciousness. The novel opens with a virtuosic portrayal of birth and the first weeks of life from the baby's point of view. At the opposite end of the scale, the description of Eleanor grappling for words after suffering a stroke is both measured and moving.
Mother's Milk is not perfect. The over-articulacy of some of its exchanges belongs more to the world of Ivy Compton-Burnett than to today's moneyed classes. Likewise, the trip to New York, while offering a welcome corrective to the "rain of American images" in which the rest of the world now drowns, dissipates the novel's focus. These, however, are minor quibbles. For once, the hype is justified. This is indeed the re-emergence of a major literary talent.
Michael Arditti's 'Unity' is published by Maia PressReuse content