'Patrick could not help thinking that this passion for saving all the children of the world was an unconscious admission that she could not save her own child. Poor Eleanor, how frightened she must have been. Patrick suddenly wanted to protect her.'
The stage is set at the crematorium where Patrick Melrose prepares to make his final farewell to his remaining parent. His mother Eleanor has died after a protracted decline in recent years, but not before she has continued to bequeath the family home and a great deal of her fortune to the rather whacky rebirthing sect in France.
Having mentioned reading books out of sequence it was only the most startling facts about Patrick Melrose's life from the previous books in the series that came back to me as I started reading At Last ... the hideously shameful nature of the childhood sexual abuse inflicted on Patrick by David, his doctor father, the powerlessness of his mother to protect him, Patrick's descent into drug addiction all catalogued in Some Hope. Then the seeming rehabilitation (with setbacks) that had taken place in Mother's Milk, but I think Edward St Aubyn plants sufficient detail here for lack of prior knowledge to be of no hindrance to the understanding of At Last.
So cometh the hour for Patrick Melrose to reflect on his life in his own comical style, and in a way that reminded me of the body language that purveys the mixed message ...sometimes the events are so awful, so distressing that comedy provides the safety net that allows for those events to be recounted.
And in the end who knew the real Eleanor Melrose? It would seem not even the confused and disempowered Eleanor herself, as slowly Edward St Aubyn reveals even more about her traumatic life with her husband David, as Patrick endeavours to make sense of the ultimate question: Quite why and how did his mother fail in her duty to protect her child, and in such a spectacular fashion?
'What was it that has driven Eleanor to furnish children for her husband...?'
Sensitively and accurately rolled out is the impact on a child of those years of abuse. I'd say as accurate as any evidence-based research coupled with neurological findings that now firmly back up that impact.
Patrick's need to find substitutes for the protection, care and affection that is lacking in his life and that ongoing need translated into adulthood, when the substitutes are likely to become far more dangerous and damaging. In Patrick Melrose's case, Some Hope describes one of the most vivid and disturbingly compelling descents into addiction that I can ever recall reading, whilst in At Last yet more expansion on those neuroses. Perhaps the narrative now coming from the psychologically available mind of a man with increasing insight into his own condition, a man who seems to have been through his share of therapy and treatment...
'There were the good women who gave him the care he never had. They had to be tortured into letting him down, to show that they couldn't really be trusted. And then there were the bad women who saved time by being untrustworthy straight away..'
and Patrick's reasoning...
'He generally alternated between these two broad categories,enchanted by some variant which briefly masked the futility of defending the decaying fortess of his personality, whilst hoping it would obligingly rearrange itself into a temple of peace and fulfilment.'
And something so serious just becomes funnier and funnier...
'Hoping and moping, moping and hoping. With only a little detachment, his love life looked like a child's wind-up toy made to march again and again over the precipice of the kitchen table.'
Despite his best efforts, and proclaiming that his mother's death is the best thing that has happened to him since his father's, Patrick finds himself incapable of side-stepping the grief that he had worked so assiduously to avoid on the death of his father some year's previously. In fact this time around he is well and truly ambushed by his autonomic nervous system...
'His body was a graveyard of buried emotions...the nervous bladder, the spastic colon, the lower-back pain, the labile blood pressure...and the imperious insomnia...all pointed to an anxiety deep enough to disrupt hisn instincts and take control of the automatic processes of his body.'
But perhaps finally there is so much more loss to be mourned, the loss of that childhood innocence and the stability and resilience into adulthood that a secure, happy childhood can bring, but also the loss of a mother who he had never really understood until, freed from the constraints of his parents' continued existence, Patrick can now look at it more closely.
Finally the primeval instincts of Fight or Flight become Face Up To It; repression, as Patrick muses to himself, was a different kind of burial, and it is inevitable that whether he likes it or not, he is working towards something important as this day at the crematorium progresses. After a great deal of wonderfully funny but no less deeply disturbing and often unsayable agonising, perhaps that peace which passes all understanding has to come to Patrick Melrose in the form of forgiveness, a process elaborated on by Paul Gilbert in his really excellent book The Compassionate Mind..
'Forgiveness doesn't mean that you'll ever like the person you're forgiving, nor does it mean that the person is entitled to your forgiveness. It is purely about letting go of your anger because it's good for you.'
As Eleanor's coffin drifts towards its destiny to the echoes of Fly Me to the Moon, if Patrick can only somehow discover that ability to be compassionate towards himself, in a way that he is starting to feel towards his mother ...
'...he opened himself up to the feeling of utter helplessness and incoherence that he supposed he had spent his life trying to avoid, and waited for it to dismember him. What happened was not what he had expected....'
To extract quotes to demonstrate a point can be dangerously off-putting I know, but reading this again, and in the context of all that other reading, I suspect many people who know him may also have smiled and heaved a huge sigh of relief along with me for dear old Patrick Melrose and what happens next.
It is Nicholas Pratt, an old friend of Patrick's father, who attending the funeral comes up with perhaps the most chilling line in the entire book...
'What a pity David isn't here to enjoy his grandsons...'
The grandsons are much in evidence at the funeral and misgivings about the advanced and gifted nature of their speech and cognitive development that I recognised in Mother's Milk linger on in this novel too, but I forgive all in the face of a series that has given me so much literary enjoyment, and in the sure and certain knowledge that, for all his shortcomings and struggles, Patrick Melrose is likely to do everything within his power to continue to break the cycle of abuse from which he may finally just have managed to extricate himself.