Patrick Melrose is bored. He is also clever. He would like you to know this.
He is also unemployed, addicted to drugs, a committed alcoholic and in his own words, filled with “bitterness, spite, sarcasm, snobbery and self-loathing.”
The response from his friend Johnny is a glance into the story’s disturbingly relatable core: “Think what you could replace it with.”
Our hero doesn’t quite manage this, mostly because of the actions of his father, a sadistic paedophile (and a qualified doctor, for good measure) who rapes his infant son and brutalises his wife, an American heiress sliding into alcoholism. As Patrick stumbles into the recreational fugue of his 20s before wading into middle age, experiencing withdrawal, marriage, fatherhood, divorce and disinheritance along the way, his toxic childhood marks his every thought and action. It leaves him incapable of making a single sage decision. His barbed internal monologue pours scorn on the fatuous actions of those around him. All the while, he wrestles with despair, self-doubt, whether or not it’s possible to forgive, and persuade others to forgive you.
His arc spans five pithily crafted and scabrously witty novels by Edward St. Aubyn, beginning in 1960s France and ending in the London of the mid-2000s. Despite their subject matter, they frequently leave the reader choking back laughter.
Perhaps that’s why I can’t help loving Patrick. For anyone who has ever known failure, his story provides a perverse sense of comfort; if nothing else, you can survive with humour.
Much of the comedy is also rooted in how despite their broad reach, the Melrose novels provide a withering but nuanced perspective on exactly what it is to be English, a stubbornly unanswered question on this side of the pond. Hailing from the self-destructive world of the aristocracy, where wealth made 250 years ago could leave, in the words of a spectator at his mother’s funeral, “six generations essentially idle.” Patrick tries to distance himself from the elitism, emotional repression and obsession with class that defines his upbringing.
But once again, he never quite manages it – possibly because he’s still a little in love with it.
(It also helps that Benedict Cumberbatch played him in the immaculate TV adaptations, released in May 2018 – but we can overlook that for now).
Few books have made me feel like my thoughts had become flesh. Like the entrance to the inferno, Melrose’s world is often one where hope has long been abandoned; yet I’ve never found any series of novels to be quite so inspiring.
Read them, and be consoled. He got through. You will too.