I devoured Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk in one sitting yesterday, so brilliant and unputdownable it is. I knew from the opening paragraph that I was going to love it:
Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born? Keeping him awake for days, banging his head again and again against a closed cervix; twisting the cord around his throat and throttling him; chomping through his mother’s abdomen with cold shears; clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side; dragging him out of his home and hitting him; shining lights in his eyes and doing experiments; taking him away from his mother while she lay on the table, half-dead. Maybe the idea was to destroy his nostalgia for the old world. First the confinement to make him hungry for space, then pretending to kill him so that he would be grateful for the space when he got it, even this loud desert, with only the bandages of his mother’s arms to wrap around him, never the whole thing again, the whole warm things all around him, being everything.
What St Aubyn does here, and throughout the book, so brilliantly is see things from a baby’s and a child’s perspective. I have never read another book about families that inhabits everyone’s viewpoints so well: either you have the adults being well-represented and the children depicted at a distance, or vice versa, but St Aubyn gets into everyone’s heads so convincingly that as a reader you feel not only that you know everyone, but that they are your family too. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that does this so effectively, but also movingly and with humour. I snorted in recognition throughout, so that Lily, who was beading next to me, eventually asked me to stop.
The story takes a look at the Melrose family over a period of four Augusts, from 2000 to 2003. The family usually holiday in France at Patrick’s – the father’s – childhood home, which his mother Eleanor has recently ceded to a New Age foundation. The family now only have rights to spend August there, and they have to tolerate the presence of foundation director Seamus, who is aggressively touchy-feely, believes he is a shaman and prefers having rituals to conversations. Patrick, a London barrister, is filled with rage that his mother has given his home away, that it is now taken over by Seamus and he is a mere disinherited visitor. He mocks Seamus privately, and to his face:
“Did you know,” said Patrick, addressing Seamus again, “that among the caribou herdsmen of Lapland, the top shaman gets to drink the urine of the reindeer that has eaten the magic mushrooms, and his assistant drinks the urine of the top shaman, and so on, all the way down to the lowest of the low who scramble in the snow, pleading for a splash of twelfth-generation caribou piss?”
“I didn’t know that,” said Seamus, flatly.
Patrick’s rage not only stems from his feeling that his mother has taken away his birthright, but also that his wife Mary – offspring of the virulently self-regarding Kettle – is being consumed by their children. Having been emotionally cut off by her mother as a child, Mary is making it up to her children with a devotion that, while not martyrish, is slavish in its totality. Patrick, making the logical connection that so many men do, uses his feeling of being ousted from Mary’s affections to develop a violent depression, a major drinking habit and an affair with an old girlfriend. Mary, aware of the affair, grows colder to her husband and ever warmer towards her children until Patrick eventually accuses her of using Thomas, three, as a “lover”.
While the bare bones of the story may seem melodramatic at first telling, this is leavened by St Aubyn’s piercing sense of humour and his tenderness with all his main protagonists. Of all the books I’ve read this year, this would be the one I would most want to have written: it is funny, moving and insightful.
For Litlove, I would also like to point out that it has at its heart the question of motherhood. There is Mary, the ur-Mother, giving her all, at the expense of everything including her marriage, to her children; there is the dreadful Kettle (“a lonely martyr to her own high standards” – don’t we all know a few of these?); and the poor crippled Eleanor, who by selecting oily Seamus as the recipient of all her earthly possessions, has alienated her family and impoverished herself. The nature of all three is encapsulated here, an early part of the book before Patrick is eaten by his own rage:
As usual, Mary had gone to sleep with Thomas, leaving Patrick split between admiration and abandonment. Mary was such a devoted mother because she knew what it felt like not to have one. Patrick also knew what it felt like, and as a former beneficiary of Mary’s maternal overdrive, he sometimes had to remind himself that he wasn’t an infant anymore, to argue that there were real children in the house, not yet horror-trained; he sometimes had to give himself a good talking-to. Nevertheless he waited for the maturing effects of parenthood. Being surrounded by children brought him closer to his own childishness.
The last sentence, to me, says it all. Being a parent gives you the stark choice of having to grow up or regress. However, although you may choose to be the grown-up, you do also get given the wonderful opportunity to play with being the child. You can share childlike emotions, games and inhabit their world, but you also have to take yourself in hand and be the one on whose shoulders the responsibilties lie. That is the crux of St Aubyn’s book: how we all cope in our different ways with the terrifying choices that parenthood presents.