Double Blind by Edward St Aubyn
Having read all five of St Aubyn’s ‘Patrick Melrose’ novels last summer and loved them (my wrap-up here), it was time to turn my attention to his new novel – a non-Melrose one. The only problem was that my expectations were very high indeed – would the book live up to its gorgeous cover?
Double Blind follows three friends and their circle, family and work, through a year in which life will change for all of them. It begins with Francis, an ecologist who advises on rewilding; he lives semi-off-grid in a rewilded corner of Sussex. The first pages see him striding through nature in all its glory, lifting up stones to find creatures beneath, listening to the birds, the leaves rustling. St Aubyn gives us the quintessential English countryside in overdrive, it couldn’t be more perfect, but then Francis thinks back to the conference he’d just attended…
One reason Francis had gone to the conference was to look into the historical question of how ecosystems had achieved equilibrium in the past. Had Britain been an almost uninterrupted woodland before the dominance of human influence, the need for fuel, building materials and agriculture land, or had megafauna prevented the emergence of unbroken forest by knocking over and trampling trees, together with smaller animals that inhibited tree growth by damaging bark and feeding on saplings? Fascinated as he was by the rival visions of ancient wilderness presented at the conference, Francis soon found that he was even more fascinated by Olivia.
That last sentence got a first guffaw from me. I always love St Aubyn’s droll one-liners.
In the second chapter we meet Lucy, Olivia’s best friend, who is just starting a new job working for Hunter Sterling, a billionaire businessman who is a better looking combination of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. She is to head up the London office of Digitas, his tech and scientific venture capital company, and was happy to move back to London from New York, where she was feeling suffocated by her rich boyfriend and his admittedly lovely family. Having made her way up from nothing she couldn’t cope with being part of old money. She couldn’t wait to see Olivia again, and tell her about Digitas‘ acquisition of a controlling interest in Olivia’s old company working for a nasty, sexist boss at YouGenetics. Cue second guffaw at that last company name, said aloud, just one syllable away from eugenics.
Then we meet Olivia, who is on her way to stay with Francis for the weekend, the first since they met at the conference. Olivia is a geneticist, about to have a book published on epigenetics, a complicated topic. I went searching for a comprehensible definition and found this one from the US CDC (Centre for Disease Control):
Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence.
Later, we will meet Olivia’s adoptive parents, both psychoanalysts. Martin, her father has a particular interest in schizophrenia and is treating Sebastian, also adopted and happens to be the same age as Olivia. Olivia and Martin are planning to write a joint paper on the subject together.
Early on in the novel though, Lucy develops spasms, and she is shocked to discover they are being caused by a brain tumour, which at first she hides from Hunter. But Hunter has been so wowed by Lucy and her work for him that it brings out a new nurturing side in him. He has been surrounded by admittedly talented people for so long, but they’re all sycophants, especially Saul, and he’s long overdone the booze and drugs putting his own health in danger. Lucy brings out the best in him…
So, you can sort of see where this is all going. St Aubyn has taken all the scientific issues that concern him: ecology and the environment, neuroscience, genetics and psychiatry and blended it with a satire on venture capitalists, big business and fuelled it with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Everything is interconnected.
I really enjoyed the first half of the book. Chuckling at the jokes – St Aubyn’s favourite fruit, figs (cf Never Mind), appear several times. There was a nice bit where Francis coins a new collective noun for butterflies for Olivia, ‘a kaleidoscope’. I felt for poor Lucy about to undergo brain surgery, I even liked Hunter’s puppyishness a bit. Then part one ended and part two began.
In part two, St Aubyn introduces God into the mix, specifically the Roman Catholic version.
One of Digitas‘ new products is the ‘happy helmet’, offering the wearer a different kind of virtual reality experience through the downloaded brainwaves of happy people. Saul had been sent to capture the brainwaves of Father Guido, an ascetic Franciscan friar in Assisi, a purer, happier and more pious soul you couldn’t hope to find. But then the Vatican discover what’s going on and want a piece of the action. Father Guido is instructed to get Hunter to sign a contract for it and to acquire the algorithm for the device by getting hold of the developer’s laptop – I mean!
‘Need I remind you that not only am I a Cardinal and you are an Abbot,’ said Lagerfeld, ‘but you are a Franciscan and I am a Jesuit? It is therefore not only impertinent to argue with me, it is futile.’
Sadly, it all went very Dan Brown. This strand of the novel was frankly ridiculous – and there were bits, mostly involving the Cardinal, that were far worse than the quote above. I commented on this to John Self, who reviewed the book for The Times (branding it a turkey) and he said this side story made him ‘cringe’. I agree totally!
From thereon in, nearly everything goes totally mad, going from California to the South of France and culminating in a big party in London for the happy helmet launch, everyone is there. The saving grace in the second half of the book is the development of Sebastian’s character, but I won’t say any more about him.
The rest all gets a bit nebulous and heavy-handed, any excitement is dulled, and the big ideas gradually dissipate as, for instance, Francis’ love of English flora and fauna gets swallowed up by consulting on the ecology of the grounds of Hunter’s properties around the world and consuming far too many magic mushrooms. It’s all rather flat in comparison with the beginning of the novel.
One clever thing is the novel’s title: at first, I had been expecting some exploration of placebos and clinical testing – that didn’t happen. But, there was a point at which it became clear what the title was about – that reveal was well-done. However, most of the ends are left thrown up in the air at the novel’s close, there’s little resolution. I suppose it does leave the reader wanting more in a way, but more of what? (6.5/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you. Edward St Aubyn, Double Blind, Harvill Secker, hardback, 256 pages.
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