I am not a fan of ‘real life’ tragic stories, nor am I in general of their fictional counterparts. To me these tend to be a) melodramatic and b) someone making a vast amount of money out of their misery. I am sure that these people had an awful childhood and so some people may think I am a little harsh, but I don’t like a whinger. In fact moaning is one of my least favourite things on earth, nothing puts me off people faster. I mean we all have really rubbish times now and again but frankly we can either whine about them or, as I hope I do when things get cruddy, try and do something positive about them or start a new project you can throw all your negative energy at in a positive way. This is all sounding a little self-helpy but hopefully it might explain why I have always resisted the, possibly autobiographical, Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn whenever someone has heartily recommended me them (and many people have). Yet when someone compared them to Augusten Burroughs novels, which I love because of the humour in the darkest of subject matters, I decided to give them at try and so picked up ‘Never Mind’.
I always admire an author who can write beautifully and simply, an author who can create the most understated of melodramas will win me over. I also always admire an author who can write a passage that chills you before one that makes you laugh out loud and then another which horrifies you all over again. All these things are encompassed in Edward St Aubyn’s first Patrick Melrose novel ‘Never Mind’. I say that this is the first Patrick Melrose novel and yet Patrick is not really the focus of this book, it is his father David who we encounter most as we witness the Melrose family having guests for a weekend to their house in Provence.
The set up of ‘Never Mind’ is beguilingly simple at the start, we join the Melrose’s over an initially none descript weekend where guests are visiting. As we read on we soon learn that there is much more going on behind this family facade than we think, and it’s dark. We have a very dysfunctional family in the Melrose’s; fiver year old Patrick is a slightly fearful boy, who will be all the more fearful by the end of the book, and somewhat a loner, his mother, Eleanor, is an alcoholic and quite possibly due to her husband, David, who married her for money, is a vicious cruel man who I would describe as psychopathic as when he needs to be (or when he wants to be) switches on the charm and has his guests enraptured, or so he likes to think.
“He knew that his unkindness to Eleanor was effective only if he alternated it with displays of concern and elaborate apologies for his destructive nature, but he had abandoned these variations because his disappointment in her was boundless. He knew that she could not help him unravel the knot of inarticulacy that he carried inside him. Instead, he could feel it tightening, like a promise of suffocation that shadowed every breath he took.”
I did for a while start to ask myself the question of ‘why are the guests visiting, why does St Aubyn want them there’ I couldn’t see the relevance as I thought the story was about an evil man abusing his wife and eventually his own child. As I read on however, I realised St Aubyn not only wanted to talk about class through this bunch of rather vile characters but he also cleverly uses the couples (Victor Eisen and Anne Moore, Nicholas Pratt and Bridget Watson-Scott) to give us their thoughts on the other characters both from what they know of them and what they observe throughout their time together. Anne being the most normal of the lot even spots there is something dark lurking in the Melrose atmosphere, Bridget just made me laugh at her blunt selfish nature.
“The thing about Nicholas was that he really was rich and beautiful and he was a baronet, which was nice and sort of Jane Austeny. Still, it wouldn’t be long before people started saying ‘You can tell he used to be good looking,’ and someone else would intervene charitably with, ‘Oh no, he still is.’ In the end she would probably marry him and she would be the fourth Lady Pratt. Then she could divorce him and get half a million pounds, or whatever, and keep Barry as her sex slave and still call herself Lady Pratt in shops. God, sometimes she was so cynical it was frightening.”
It is in fact Bridget that really brings the humour into the novel, because of her thoughts and observations, yet she also adds to the element of discomfort. Some authors use humour to lighten a novel, St Aubyn does it almost to highlight the real depths of the darkness, there is a sense of relief when you laugh out loud, but its shortlived and you know something darker will follow. The scenes around their welcoming drinks where Bridget knows just how David has made Eleanor get rid of the fallen figs from the tree, and then comments on how many figs must be wasted, are so uncomfortable you read on transfixed, rather like how you can’t help but stare at a car crash. The dinner table conversations also read like extreme dark frosty comedy of manners pieces, the humour adds to the darkness rather than detracts from it if you get my drift. It’s not something I have come across before in a book that I can think of and it’s stayed with me.
I don’t want to talk about the moment of utter darkness in the book in too much detail, not because I shy away from the uncomfortable subject of child abuse but because I think you need to read it without knowing when it’s going to happen, or how St Aubyn writes it so understatedly, for it to really have the desired effect and leave you winded. Like the whole book it’s economical and therefore only hits you harder. It seems odd, and a cliché, to call ‘Never Mind’ a masterpiece especially with some of its subject matter but really there is no other word for it. To quote Maggie O’Farrell, as she puts it so well, this novel is ‘At once epic and intimate, appalling and comic’ and that is exactly how I felt when I had finished ‘Never Mind’. Recommend seems the wrong word, but I would suggest everyone gives this book a try, I will certainly be reading the rest of the series without a doubt.