Mother’s Milk is an exploration into the tricky relationship which exists between mother and child. The novel opens with Robert’s birth, and he tells us how excruciating it is to be separated from his mother. Then we come to Patrick, Robert’s father, who cannot find a healthy way to be separate from his mother. The narrative flows between mother and grandmother, child and parent, pointing out the most tender aspects as well as the most terrifying. It make me examine my role as child, and my role as mother; I know that I have often loved my son too much with an approach only meant to protect him. As if that was in my power.
One small chapter, in this powerful novel, is about the Melrose’s trip to America. It made me absolutely laugh out loud in the way that Edward St. Aubyn articulated everything that horrifies me about my own country. It is not necessarily the America that I knew growing up, but it is certainly the America I exist in now. Here is a glimpse of that chapter:
Would America be just like he’d imagined it? Along with the rest of the world, Robert had lived under a rain of American images most of his life. Perhaps the place had already been imagined for him and he wouldn’t be able to see anything at all.
The first impression that came his way, while the plane was still on the ground at Heathrow, was a sense of hysterical softness. The flow of passengers up the aisle was blocked by a red-haired woman sagging at the knees under her own weight.‘I cannot go there. I cannot get in there,’ she panted. ‘Linda wants me to sit by the window, but I cannot fit in there.’‘Get in there, Linda,’ said the enormous father of the family.‘Dad!’ said Linda, whose size spoke for itself.That certainly seemed typical of something he had seen before in London’s tourist spots: a special kind of tender American obesity; not the hardwon fat of a gourmet, or the juggernaut body of a truck driver, but the apprehensive fat of people who had decided to become their own airbag systems in a dangerous world. What if their bus was hijacked by a psychopath who hadn’t brought any peanuts? Better have some now. If there was going to be a terrorist incident, why go hungry on top of everything else?Eventually, the Airbags dented themselves into their seats. Robert had never seen such vague faces, mere sketches on the immensity of their bodies. Even the father’s relatively protuberant features looked like the remnants of a melted candle. As she squeezed into her aisle seat, Mrs. Airbag turned to the long queue of obstructed passengers, a brown smudge of tiredness radiating from her faded hazel eyes.‘Thank you for your patience,’ she groaned.‘It’s sweet of her to thank us for something we haven’t given her,” said Robert’s father. ‘Perhaps I should thank her for her agility.”Robert’s mother gave him a warning look. It turned out they were in the row behind the Airbags.
I see this passive kind of American more often than I ever used to see a few decades ago. It’s as though so many of us have lost a purpose, a focus for living other than immediate gratification. It is exhibited in the food available to eat, as well as the president elected to lead, as though the public is saying, “Give us what we want, now!” regardless of the effects.
Edward St. Aubyn even points out the difference between American and English parks:
The park was bright and warm, crowded with sleeveless dresses and jackets hooked over shoulders. Robert felt the heightened alertness of arrival being eroded by exhaustion, and the novelty of New York overlaid by the sense that he had seen this new place a thousand times before. Whereas the London parks he knew seemed to insist on nature, Central Park insisted on recreation. Every inch was organized for pleasure. Cinder paths looped among the little hills and plains, past a zoo and a skating rink, quiet zones, sports fields and a plethora of playgrounds. Headphoned rollerbladers pursued a private music. Teenagers scaled small mounds of bronze-grey rocks. A flute player’s serpentine music echoed damply under the arch of a bridge. As it faded behind them, it was replaced by the shrill mechanical tooting of a carousel.
It is no wonder that Mother’s Milk has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, and won the 2007 Prix Femina Étranger and the 2007 South Bank Literature Award. It seems to me to be the crowning glory of the four Patrick Melrose novels I’ve read this week, while anticipating At Last.