My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The saving grace of this book is that it's short. If I had been forced to read ten more pages, I think I might have slit my wrists.
Not that it is a terrible book. Actually, it is quite a good, well-written book. Edward St. Aubyn is a skillful writer adept at telling the story that he wants to tell. But the story that he tells is so unrelentingly depressing that it is a very fortunate thing that there are only 132 pages of it.
The characters in the book are for the most part simply awful people and the most awful of the lot is the pater familias David Melrose. David is sadistic and utterly without morals, cruel to both humans and animals. He delights in torturing ants with his lighted cigar, but not as much as he enjoys torturing and humiliating his wife, Eleanor.
Eleanor has retreated and descended into addiction as an escape from the cruelties she endures. She drinks incessantly, striving for a constant state of drunkenness, and she augments the liquor with pills.
These, then, are the two parents that five-year-old Patrick Melrose is encumbered with - a father who controls and tortures him and a mother who is barely aware of him through her alcoholic haze.
The events of this novel take place on one day of Patrick Melrose's young life. A momentous day as it turns out.
In the first interaction of the day between Patrick and his father, David lifts him off the floor by his ears! Patrick manages to escape and hides, but later when he is afraid of missing lunch, he comes out of hiding and his father discovers him and commands him to come to his bedroom. There, he pulls the boy's pants down, puts him over his knees and beats his bare bottom with his slipper.
But that isn't the end. Apparently, the beating only served to arouse David and, not to put too fine a point on it, he rapes his son. His five-year-old son. Afterwards, he warns the boy that he must never speak of it or he will be punished very, very severely.
Then David goes on with his day as if nothing had happened and gets ready to entertain "friends" for dinner.
Those friends are two couples, Nicholas and Bridget and Victor and Anne. Of the group, Nicholas seems most in thrall to David and seeks to make common cause with him in all things. That extends to the humiliation of Eleanor.
Bridget is a bit of a free spirit. She is repelled by David. There may be hope for her.
Victor is a writer/philosopher and Anne his American paramour. They seem to see David pretty clearly for what he is and, in the middle of dinner, as David continues his repulsive behavior, Anne signals Victor that it is time for them to go and they leave. There may be hope for them as well.
No hope I'm afraid for Eleanor and certainly not for Patrick and probably none for Nicholas who seems to aspire to be another David.
As I was reading this book, I found myself remembering The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, a book set in North Korea that I read last year. I thought to myself that the society of the Melrose household was very much like that of North Korea. It was completely controlled by a narcissistic sociopath who only sought his own pleasure. If that pleasure involved pain for others, it only made it sweeter.
Yes, St. Aubyn was very wise to make this book short. Apparently the other four books in the "Patrick Melrose series" are short, too, which is likely also a good thing. I'll probably read them. Just not soon.
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