Review: At Last, by Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn is a courageous writer and one of the most brilliant British prose stylists since Evelyn Waugh, to whom he is often compared.  "Courageous" because the first four novels in his Patrick Melrose series draw on his horrific personal history of childhood sexual abuse and adult cross-addictions.  And I chose "horrific" deliberately--he was repeatedly raped by his father at the age of five.  But "brilliant" because the books aren't merely a confessional crawl through a personal hell, but the lacerating depiction of a declining British upper class.  The first novel takes place at his family's country home in the South of France; the second, during a drug-and alcohol-fueled bender in New York twenty years later; the third, at a stately-home party whose guest list includes Princess Margaret; and the fourth, during a family vacation at which he starts and affair and learns that his mother is giving the French country house to a cult.  

I loved these books, bleak as they are.  So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I opened the fifth and final volume.  I'm sorry to say I was slightly disappointed.  While St. Aubyn retains his narrative gift, his arch description of character occasionally descends into caricature--all the players are upper class twits, new age twits, or upper class new age twits.  Further, because the action takes place at his mother's funeral, all of them appeared in previous volumes.  It was therefore difficult to keep the players straight.

That said, St. Aubyn is characteristically clear-eyed and unsentimental in revealing further details of a childhood I'd thought couldn't get any worse.  He was not only raped, but conceived in rape.  His mother gave birth to him, alone, in a freezing Cornish attic.  And let's not even talk about the circumcision.

Despite these reservations about the final installment, the series as a whole is one of the most audacious and brilliantly executed works of the past twenty years.