Four Augusts – Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

When someone attaches the word “vicious” to a novel, I instantly become intrigued. The adjective is too strong a description that I myself use it sparingly. There’s something acerbic about the sound of succeeding v and sh.

If one were to precede the adverb “brilliantly” to it, what is one expected to do? Should one forget it lest he suffers a cardiac, or should one immediately buy the first copy that he sees? I did the latter, and fortunately found a copy on a sale bin. Look! The color tone of its cover is a favorite.

So whoever said that this novel is brilliantly vicious? I’d rather not say. Will I echo it? Let me see.

She guided the baby’s head towards her nipple and he started to suck. A thin stream from his old home flooded his mouth and they were together again. He could sense her heartbeat. Peace shrouded them like a new womb. Perhaps this was a good place to be after all, just difficult to get into.

Mother’s Milk is the fourth novel of the Patrick Melrose series. Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope precede it, and why did I not bother reading these first? I felt that I had to immediately try St. Aubyn with what books of him that I already have. Besides, it can stand on its own.

Patrick, according to the little research that I did on the first three novels, is a deeply troubled man thanks to his horrible parents who did a very bad job in raising him. It’s actually surprising that this man who was abused in every manner by his father would be able to marry and build a family. His wife and kids are introduced in this novel. And oh, the father is already dead. The death occurred prior to this novel.

The novel spans four years and is divided into four parts, each part taking place on an August. The first August is told in the perspective of Patrick’s first son, Robert, a boy too precocious for his age that, at five, has a very keen understanding of his father. That he remembers every detail of his birth only underscores his superior wit. I find it incredulous that he gives a description of his head banging against his mother’s cervix at the opening pages. And yet, I ended up believing every word that Robert says. In fact, he’s currently my favorite fictional child, ever. Never mind that he’s a little withdrawn. Perhaps we have his father to blame?

Patrick’s perspective comes at the second August. We read about his attempts to keep his sons from suffering a childhood similar to his own, but he unconsciously creates problems that, although less miserable, are damaging. As if escaping his sordid childhood weren’t enough, his wife, Mary, focuses all her attention and energy on the younger Thomas in the same attempt to make their children’s lives different from their own. This unbalanced share of attention creates problems in the marriage, problems that are grave in magnitude that could blow a family apart.

And yes, Mary becomes the central character on the third August. In comparison to Patrick, she is still fortunate in terms of childhood. We can’t help feeling sympathetic and understanding why she is manically devoted to mothering.

The fourth August, I’ll leave it up to you.

3 star - liked itPatrick and Mary are only too aware of their shortcomings and their parents’ misgivings. They ferociously avoid the mistakes of their parents’ parenting, only to end up in obsession and self-destruction. The mothers of the two are still alive, and we see how their relationship further disintegrates year after year.

Overall, I didn’t find it as brilliantly vicious as claimed by some people who are recommending it. I found it lacking something which I couldn’t really point at. It’s not that I didn’t find the effects and styles of parenting interesting, or that the theme of past mistakes recurring in the present important; I just didn’t feel the impact that I was expecting.

Probably I should have read the other books in the series, no? Anyway, for its refreshing prose and biting humor, this can pass for a thoughtful and delightful read.

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