20 Books of Summer #7-8 – The Melrose Novels #2-3 by Edward St Aubyn

See here for my review of the first novel in this series, Never Mind. I know that some of the events happening in that novel are hard to take, especially as they’re surrounded by such mordant wit, but I’d urge those who gave up after the first book, to carry on with the second – which is very different indeed, and very funny …

Volume 2 – Bad News

In the 2018 TV adaptations, this novel was moved to become the first episode, allowing its star, Benedict Cumberbatch to give an utterly bravura performance as the posh heroin addict in withdrawal.

It’s now the early 1980s and Patrick is in his early twenties. The novel begins on the transatlantic flight as Patrick travels to New York to collect the ashes of his father who has died. He arrives at his hotel, The Pierre, one of the Big Apple’s finest:

Patrick caught sight of himself in a large gilt mirror, and notice that, as usual, he looked rather overdressed and extremely ill. There was a disturbing contrast between the care with which the clothes had been assembled and the ease with which the face looked as if it might fall apart. […] The face itself was in a spasm of contradiction. The full lips were pinched inward, the eyes reduced to narrow slits, the nose, which was permanently blocked, forced him to breathe through his open mouth and made him look rather imbecilic; and a frown concentrated his forehead into a vertical crease directly above the nose.

It’s no time at all before he’s back downstairs, crossing the road to Central Park to score Quaaludes and speed before going to the funeral parlour to view his father’s body, getting sent to the wrong room at first, which is super-frustrating to the freshly drugged up Patrick. His weekend in New York will become a tale of two themes – getting more drugs and meeting old friends of his father’s, who seem to reminisce about how ‘exceptional’ David was, a word with which Patrick can agree – but in a rather different sense. He also meets Anne again whom we met in Never Mind and she gives Patrick a copy of husband Victor’s new philosophy book.

Meanwhile the need for a hit is calling – and St Aubyn’s descriptions of the junkie’s life are detailed and graphic – not for the faint-hearted, yet they are always backed by Patrick’s sardonic humour and fearlessness about the drugs. Once he discovers that the speed he’d bought was mostly scouring powder, he calls up Pierre, his French dealer, but can’t get through, so heads downtown this time, where after nearly ending up stabbed, he is rescued by another dealer who recognises him from previous visits called Chilly Willy! This time the hit, injected with a very dodgy and blunt syringe is better. But it is when Patrick finally contacts Pierre and gets the best quality heroin that he is finally sated, experiencing a high full of bizarre visions that come flooding in from everywhere – from Star Trek to the Von Trap Family Singers to JFK’s speeches all mixed up with an imagined eulogy for his own funeral.

He returns to the funeral parlour to collect his father’s ashes, carrying the urn in a box in a bag and heads off to dinner with another old family friend:

‘Is that . . . ?’ asked Mrs Banks, staring round-eyed at the brown-paper bag.
‘My father,’ confirmed Patrick.
‘I must tell Ogilvy we’ll be one more for dinner,’ she said with peals of chic laughter.

It is frankly quite amazing that with all the drugs and booze that Patrick ingests that he survives the weekend to head back home to London, and his girlfriend Debbie, with whom he has a tortured relationship…

What could he say to Debbie? ‘Although you know that my hatred for my father, and my love for drugs, are the most important relationships in my life, I want you to know that you could in third?’ What woman would not be proud to be ‘among the medals’ in such a contest?

It’s obvious that Patrick despises himself for being a junkie, so that saves us from despising him too. The reader is undeniably on his side after the trauma of his early life. All the time our fingers are crossed hoping that he can get some sort of closure, get clean, to find love and elevate it into gold medal position. But that’s another story.

I really enjoyed how St Aubyn made Bad News a true snapshot in Patrick’s life, just 160 pages or so of that single long weekend. I’ve never read as vivid an account of an addict’s life – yes, Patrick’s moneyed experience is different to say Renton’s petty theft fuelled highs in Trainspotting (a novel whose dialect I couldn’t get on with), but the way St Aubyn describes it in Melrose’s privileged voice is something else. Despite the privilege though, the fact that we remain on Patrick’s side is partially due to our knowledge that these novels are full of detail from St Aubyn’s own life, but also the sheer wit on the page again. Absolutely gripping reading. (10/10)

Volume 3 – Some Hope

The next snapshot that St Aubyn gives us is set eight years later, we’re up to 1990. He lives in a flat in Ennismore Gardens in South Kensington. (I only mention that as it’s a real location and I sometimes frequented the pub in the mews whilst at Imperial College.)

Patrick is older, not necessarily wiser, but he is clean!

He had been weaned from his drug addiction in several clinics, leaving promiscuity and party-going to soldier on uncertainly, like troops which had lost their commander. His money, eroded by extravagance and medical bills, kept him from poverty without enabling him to buy his way out of boredom. Quite recently, to his horror, he had realized he would have to get a job. He was therefore studying to become a barrister, in the hope that he would find some pleasure in keeping as many criminals as possible at large.

This weekend he has a party to go to. The hostess is Bridget, whom we first met as the teenaged girlfriend of baronet Nicholas Pratt in Never Mind. Bridget moved on and having been introduced into high circles by Nicholas married up, and the party is to celebrate her son Sonny’s imminent nuptials. There’ll be two dinners: one at neighbours the Bossington-Joneses for the second string of guests, and one for the favoured few at which the guest of honour, Princess Margaret, will be present, followed by the big party afterwards.

Patrick is due to travel down with his best friend of long standing, Johnny Hall. Johnny has had his own addiction problems with alcohol, and goes to a therapy group, and has been a big help to Patrick in his struggles to get clean. Patrick and Johnny decide to forego the torture of dinner at the Bossington-Joneses, and dine at their nearby hotel instead. It is over dinner, in between interruptions by an over-keen waiter whom Patrick snaps at, that Patrick opens up to Johnny and tells him about his father molesting him as a child. This is a hint of a new Patrick in the making. Although this doesn’t give instant closure, ‘the catharsis of confession eluded him’, it is a sign of a new maturity – he even apologises to the waiter later! Patrick thinks back to when,

… at the age of eight, inspired by his parents’ separation, refused one day to give in to his father’s sexual assaults. Patrick’s transformation of himself from a toy into a person shattered his father, who realized that Patrick must have known what was being done to him.

Harriet Walter as Princess Margaret

The humour in this volume comes from all the awful people at the dinners and party, Patrick and Johnny being relatively normal in comparison! The star of this is, naturally, Princess Margaret, who humiliates the French ambassador when he accidentally splashes her dress at dinner. It’s a small world, and among the guests Patrick is horrified to meet the son of an awful big game hunting American businessman whom Patrick had the misfortune to meet in New York – said son has inherited his late father’s gun collection. Consequently, Patrick is more pleased to bump into old flame Laura though:

‘How are you, anyway, darling?’ Laura asked. ‘I’m pleased to see you. This party is really getting on my nerves. Men used to tell me how they used butter for sex, now they tell me how they’ve eliminated it from their diet.’

Patrick is getting bored, then he sees Anne, who was always more of a friend to his mother than his father. She apologises for not following through her promise to get his mother for him when she found him hiding on the stairs at that dinner party, back when he was five. They’re discussing his father and whether Patrick is ready to forgive rather than hate.

‘There’s no point in staying stuck,’ Patrick agreed. ‘But there’s even less point in pretending to be free. I feel on the verge of a great transformation, which may be as simple as becoming interested in other things.’

[For those who won’t read about animal cruelty, there is one page at the end of Anne and Patrick’s conversation, about eight pages from the end of the novel, about things her own mother did to cats – you have been warned!]

Some Hope does indeed end with hope for Patrick, who has been very restrained in this volume. As for all the other drunken, promiscuous and obsequious to royalty toffs at the party, that world into which Bridget pushed herself and will now get her comeuppance, they’re just as bad as each other, and I found myself laughing at them, but with Patrick. This middle volume in the series, although short and sweet at 140 pages, was perhaps less enjoyable than the other two in terms of wit, but, marking as it does, the emotional turning point in Patrick’s life and resonating back to episodes in the previous two books, it provides an important fulcrum for the next installments (how pleased I am with myself at being able to use the word ‘fulcrum’!!!). (9/10)

Source: Own copies.

BUY at Amazon UK Bad News, Some Hope or Blackwell’s Bad NewsSome Hope. (affiliate links)

10 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer #7-8 – The Melrose Novels #2-3 by Edward St Aubyn

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I started with Some Hope because this was the one I could find at the library, so was amused but not terribly impressed. It’s not as visceral as the other ones. I then watched the TV series and realised that I needed to go back and read the others.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      You definitely need to read the previous ones. I remember trying to read the fourth back when it came out and I didn’t get it at all. I do now having read these.The first two are amazingly good.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The TV was wonderful – but on Sky – so not sure if streamed elsewhere. You can buy the DVDs. The 2nd book was very different in tone, less tragic, more comic – but you could read it and go from there, but you need to have read/or know what happens in the 1st book to appreciate the others.

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    Bad News has been my favourite (thus far) — such dark comedy! I found Book 1 a little too caustic. I’m sure after #4 I’ll have to get the last one out from the library, and then somehow get the Cumberbatch series to watch.

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