Monday, April 29, 2013

At Last

At Last
Edward St. Aubyn

Although At Last is the fifth and final book of the semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose cycle, it is perfectly readable as a stand-alone novel.

Like the previous Melrose novels, At Last is narrated around a single event in the life of Patrick Melrose. Fittingly for the final installment of a series, this time the event is a funeral. Patrick Melrose’s mother, Eleanor, a damaged, deranged heiress, has died at last, and although no one at the funeral (Patrick included) appears to miss her very much, the rites and rituals of death cause Patrick to revisit the history of his horrendous family and the unhappy events that formed him. One by one, the spoiled, miserable, mostly very rich aristocrats in Patrick’s life drift through the funeral: his wife, his children, his mistress, a battery of cousins, the acerbic Nicholas Pratt, Eleanor’s batty spiritual advisor, Annette. Their condolences are mostly hollow, and over the course of the novel we find out why Patrick is capable of statements like, “I think my mother’s death is the best thing to happen to me since…well, since my father’s death.”

At Last finds Patrick not long after he has completed an extended stay at the Priory (a rehabilitation centre for extremely rich people), where he has overcome the temptations of both alcohol and of Becky, a lovely young drug addict. The reason for Patrick’s alcoholism becomes quickly apparent as we learn that Eleanor spent the first act of her life married to a sadistic pedophile, Patrick’s father David, and the second act atoning for it by becoming a professional benefactress, giving away her fortune to everyone except for her son: casual acquaintances, mystical religions, South American priests-cum-pedophiles.

Patrick passed his taciturn, terrified childhood in Saint-Nazaire in France and at a grand estate pile in England, where he was sexually abused at age five by his father with the tacit consent of his wilfully blind mother ("How could Eleanor not have known?" he rages). Robbed of his innocence, he is subsequently also robbed of his inheritance when Eleanor disinherits him in favour of the “Transpersonal Foundation,” an institution dedicated to dubious practices of all shades, including “shamanic healing.”

At Last offers a darkly humorous glimpse into the lives of the titled British upper class, and the book is vaguely reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice in its fascination with inheritance. Both David and his mother were reared in the trappings of wealth, only to have it all snatched away and then miraculously gifted back by a chance clause in some distant relative’s will.

The fascination of At Last is not in its plot, which after all revolves around a funeral. In the hands of a lesser author, this book would be very dull: a confessional, a pity party for the rich in which all of the action transpires solely in the narrator’s head. There is no danger of this, however, as the novel is exquisitely written. St. Aubyn makes the mundane sequence of a funeral interesting by employing an economy, precision, and wit in his writing that is reminiscent of J. M. Coetzee or Muriel Spark. There are no superfluous passages, no bloated walls of text; every adjective is precisely positioned. It would be hard to call At Last an enjoyable read—the subjects are too macabre, and Patrick’s life is a train wreck. But like all train wrecks, it’s hard to look away from it.

- Monika Yazdanian

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