The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – some overall thoughts

Something a little different from me today. Not a review as such, but some overarching reflections on this exceptional series of novels, which I gobbled up over the course of a week back in April during my recovery from a major fracture. I’d already had a bit of a false start back in February with the first book in the series, Never Mind; but then again, a six-hour session in A&E was probably not the ideal environment in which to read a story as brutal and hard-hitting as this. (Perversely, it was the only book I had with me at the time of my accident; but to be honest, I was grateful for any form of distraction from the pain.)

Anyway, back to the books. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. Along the way, the novels delve into child abuse, marital rape, drug addiction, alcohol misuse, abject cruelty and neglect, and all manner of other sadistic behaviours. It is a story in which the sins and failures of both fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. (Sounds great, doesn’t it? I know – I’m really selling it here.)

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Far from it in fact. With the possible exception of book one, Never Mind, the novels are shot through with a wickedly funny, caustic seam of humour, much of which stems from Patrick’s inherent cynicism and fiercely cutting sense of wit.

The books are also superbly written; not a word wasted or out of place. St Aubyn is clearly one of our finest prose stylists, a writer with the ability to convey the sharpest of feelings in just a sentence or two.

The first drink centred him for about twenty minutes and then the rest brought his night mind rushing over the landscape like the dark blade of an eclipse. (p. 225, Mother’s Milk)

When read as a series, the novels are immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into Patrick’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. There is something very humane and profound about these novels, the sense that by examining the various generations of his family in this way, St Aubyn is attempting to exorcise the ghosts of his past, to banish the demons of his early life and painful existence. (The books are clearly semi-autobiographical.) And yet they are about as far from the conventional misery memoir as you are ever likely to get. The combination of fierce intelligence and sharp, sardonic wit sets them apart from anything as formulaic as this.

In a follow-up post to go out later this week, I’m planning to touch on the individual novels, just to highlight one or two points about each one. Inevitably, this will include the broad arc of Patrick’s story. However, the traditional notion of plot is not the main driving force here; instead, the series is more about character, personal experience and psychological insight.

In the meantime, I’ll wrap up with the following thoughts…

Razor-sharp, fiercely intelligent and emotionally penetrating in its examination of dysfunctional families, this series is a masterpiece of English fiction. I’m so glad I returned to it in a more conducive environment.

Viewed individually, the books are by turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny. Perseverance may well be the key here – if you get past the first two volumes, you’re almost certainly home free. More on the individual instalments in my next post, hopefully later this week…

The Patrick Melrose novels are published by Picador; personal copies.

42 thoughts on “The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – some overall thoughts

  1. Tredynas Days

    I read these a while back and agree wholeheartedly with your assessment: his style is impeccable and the subject is compelling. A brilliant trilogy; as good in its way as J Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow but not quite reaching the heights of weird genius of the Spaniard. Very close, though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, he’s a superb stylist. The book on addiction is one of the most dazzling pieces of fiction I’ve read in quite some time. 2019 has definitely been the year of the big series of me. Marias, Melrose and A Dance to the Music of Time. All masterpieces in their own individual ways.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No worries at all. I knew what you meant! It’s interesting you mention Marias in your comment as his style is very different to St Aubyn’s, much more philosophical and meditative. They’re both remarkable achievements though, in their own distinctive ways. :)

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I felt that with the first book but not the other four. The fact that Patrick finds some kind of release from the demons of his past by the end of the series is a point in its favour. It’s almost cathartic in a way…

      Reply
  2. BookerTalk

    I’ve mixed him up with the guy who wrote Tales from the City – I know, completely different setting and style etc but somehow the names got mangled. Now I’ve got that straightened I must make a point to read the Melrose given your flowing report.

    Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    I’m taking note of your mention of perseverance, Jacqui, although such is my current mood with the outside world I think I may leave trying again for a while. Hope you’re completerly recovered now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is worth considering another try at some point, but I totally get what you’re saying about the current mood – you definitely need to be in the right frame of mind for something like this. The first two books in particular are pretty tough in terms of subject matter, but the caustic wit and quality of writing really elevate the series as a whole to a higher level.

      And yes, I’m pretty much fully recovered from the fracture, thanks. It feels good to be moving around relatively smoothly again!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ha! Yes, I can’t see the current fiasco ending well…

          Thanks for your good wishes, Susan. I can even walk up the underground escalator properly without feeling everything pulling on my left side! Little things, little things…

          Reply
  4. Radz Pandit

    Wholeheartedly agree with you Jacqui. These are a brilliant series of novels. The subject matter is grim but Aubyn’s writing is simply stunning – full of caustic wit – making the whole experience quite unforgettable. I thought the adaption starring Benedict Cumberbatch was also well done.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I’m so glad you’re a fan of this series as well. (I think we may have talked about it before at some point, possibly in one of your best-of-the-year round-ups?) The adaptation is terrific, isn’t it? I’m not usually a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, but I do think he’s excellent in this. He has that sardonic edge down pat!

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    The books sound great. It is interesting that the first novel may be a little different. That is unusual. It seems that most authors establish a pattern and then stick to it. I look forward to your upcoming posts.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s the subject matter in the first book that makes it so hard-hitting: child abuse, marital rape, conscious cruelty…I could go on. There’s less room for humour in that one, particularly as Patrick is only a child at that point and yet he sees, overhears or experiences directly pretty much everything that’s going on. I’ll touch on it a little more in my follow-up post…

      Reply
  6. Bob Pyper

    I agree with your analysis of these wonderful novels, Jacqui. Beautifully written books, with memorable characters. Real darkness, but also genuine wit. Unusually, the television dramatisation of the books did them justice, I thought. St Aubyn is a fine writer – his novels beyond the Melrose sequence are also very good. I’ve just finished reading ‘Dunbar’, his ‘update’ of ‘King Lear’. Worth a look.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Bob. I thought the TV adaptation was excellent – just the right balance between the horror of Patrick’s life and the flashes of caustic wit (almost as a coping mechanism to alleviate some of the pain). It’s interesting to hear your thoughts about St Aubyn’s other novels too – that’s really good to know. I recall seeing some mixed reviews of his literary satire, Lost for Words, when it came out, but it sounds as if you rate it quite highly. I’ll have to take a look at Dunbar, too – many thanks for the tip!

      Reply
      1. Bob Pyper

        I’ve read all of St Aubyn’s novels, Jacqui, and enjoyed each one. I think it is fair to say that the non-Melrose novels are each flawed, but certainly worth reading. They don’t reach the high standard of the Melrose sequence, but then, I think that it a very high standard!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, very high indeed! I’m quite open to a few flaws here and there as long as the characters and subject matter are interesting. Plus, it sounds as if the quality of the writing is impressively good. I’ll have to take a look…

          Reply
          1. Bob Pyper

            The cool prose style of St Aubyn is evident across all the novels, and the interesting characterisation. I saw mentions of Javier Marias’s novels in some of the comments above, and read your reviews of his work with interest as I’ve been thinking about trying these. Best not to start with ‘Your Face Tomorrow’, would you say? If so, which of the stand-alone novels would you recommend?

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Yes, I’d suggest you start with one of the standalones, particularly as one or two of them do end up linking to Your Face Tomorrow. I would recommend either A Heart So White (my personal favourite) or All Souls – the latter has the most direct link with YFT as the central character, Jacques Deza, appears in both. I think either of those two would give you a good feel for Marias’s style and ongoing preoccupations.

              Reply
  7. heavenali

    I keep hearing about Patrick Melrose because of the TV series, but hadn’t any idea what the books would be like. There does seem to be a degree of disturbing themes in these books, which I might find a tad realistic at the moment. Good to hear he’s such a good writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The first two in particular are very disturbing, and the emotional fallout from the early incidents continues to reverberate through the series. I’ll be going into each book in more detail later this week, so hopefully that’ll give you more of a feel for whether or not they for you.

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Interesting post Jacqui! I’ve heard of the books, but knew little about them and they certainly sound individual, if a little dark. Maybe it’s the kind of series where you need that enforced down time to immerse yourself…. I wouldn’t wish your fracture on anyone, and I hope you’re nicely mended now, but perhaps we could all cultivate an unnamed ailment which involves lying down for months and just reading…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes. Preferably something less painful than a fractured pelvis. (Perversely, I had to spend most of my days standing up because sitting or lying on my back/side was putting too much pressure on the fracture. It was actually more comfortable to stand up straight than to lie down anywhere – I became very adept at reading on my feet, leaning on one of my bookcases for support!)

      As for the Melrose novels, the first two are particularly dark. As you say, all that spare time helped as it meant I could devote myself to the series with relatively few distractions. Unlike Powell’s Dance, I read these novels back to back without any other books in between, partly because the frenetic nature of Patrick’s personality added to the sense of momentum. Once I got into book two, I didn’t want to stop.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I tried to make the most of all that time at home. It’s been the year of the big series for me so far: the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Anthony Powell’s ‘Dance’ and now the Melrose novels – I’ve read them all!

      Reply
  9. Liz

    Very interesting to read your thoughts on this series. I tried to get in to the recent TV adaptation but even the inclusion of Benedict Cumberbatch could not keep me watching. I may give the books a go some time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You might find the books tough going, particularly as you’ve stalled on the adaptation. The first book (episode 2 in the TV series) is particularly grim as it deals with the abuse in Patrick’s childhood. I think it’s a remarkable sequence of novels but definitely not for everyone!

      Reply
  10. Pingback: The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – part 2, the individual books | JacquiWine's Journal

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  12. Bellezza

    It is the wicked, caustic humor which mesmerized me, for as you say, the topics are rather alarming. But, like you, I read them while recovering from surgery, and I read them in a steady, devouring rush. I have since read everything he’s written, although none of the other books have pleased me quite as much as this series. I would like to reread them, some day, and I hope you are feeling significantly better.

    p.s. One of his books (Lost For Words) is a parody on literary prizes, and it is priceless. Every time the Man Booker lists are released I think of it and laugh.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the sardonic humour is terrifically well done, so finely judged. It’s a quality that really comes through from the second book onwards, which is possibly one of the reasons why I struggled somewhat with the first.

      I’m glad to hear that you liked his other books, even if they did fall a little short of the standard set by the Melrose novels – to be fair, that’s a very high bar. I quite fancy the literary prize satire one, almost certainly a dig at the Booker there!

      Reply

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