To give a pertinent question a tentative answer: No, I don't think At Last is the best place to start, if you don't already know the work of Edward St. Aubyn. At Last is the culmination of a sequence of novels centred on the life of Patrick Melrose, an upper-class Englishman, and it is very good. A reader who does not know the previous novels in the series – Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope and Mother's Milk – would, I think, miss some of At Last's overtones and emotional resonance.
A little background: Edward St. Aubyn is a highly regarded English writer and it's easy to see why. He writes a clean, memorable (and sometimes vicious) English.
Eleanor had expected to meet Jesus at the end of a tunnel after she died. The poor man was a slave to his fans, waiting to show crowds of eager dead the neon countryside that lay beyond the rebirth canal of earthly annihilation.
The first novel in the series, Never Mind, dealt with Patrick's monstrous father, David, a sadist who repeatedly raped Patrick beginning when the boy was five years old. The first rape – the only one described – is brutal not only in itself but also because it is seen (by David Melrose) as an aspect of his entitlement, as his due. So, it is not only the rape that scars Patrick. It is the fear and shame of home, the lack of shelter, and the sheer bleakness of human interactions.
The novels that followed make up an informal chronicle of Patrick's efforts to deal with his childhood, with the death of his father, with his own addiction to heroin, his alcoholism, his inability to carry on an emotionally mature relationship with the women in his life, and with his love for his two (exceptionally bright) sons.
What sets the Patrick Melrose novels apart from other chronicles of abuse, addiction and injustice is their tone. The books are, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, dryly humorous, mean, witty and surreal. They are also contemplative, adult and intellectually searching.
Patrick Melrose tries, with mixed results, to understand what has happened to him. He tries to understand himself and his flaws, his privileged class and culture. He tries to manage his rage and deal with the world in a way that is not self-destructive. That he's not always successful is, given his childhood, unsurprising but, especially in the novel that precedes this one, Mother's Milk, he is also exasperating and, at times, unlikeable.
At Last deals with the death of Patrick's mother, and her funeral. Characters from the previous novels recur here, but their backgrounds are not essential to the narrative. For the most part, the novel is set in a chapel during the memorial service and at the gathering afterward.
As are the previous novels, At Last can be very funny. It contains a sequence – one of the best in any of the Melrose novels – in which we hear the fleeting thoughts of a handful of the mourners as they listen to Gershwin's I Got Plenty o' Nuttin' as well as to readings from Yeats and the Bible. The thoughts range from the nasty ("How nauseating, thought Nicholas, a Jew being sentimental on behalf of a Negro…") to the absurd (speculation that the dead woman might, in a previous life, have been a runaway slave) to the philosophical (a reflection on Nietzsche and Rousseau).
Again, as with the previous novels, At Last has passages on the meaning of consciousness, on the value or uselessness of psychiatry, on the nature of addiction. But At Last is also the most deeply resonant of the novels, emotionally. There is, of course, the matter of death. It's difficult not to be resonant when death's involved. But, in At Last, finally, Patrick Melrose comes to understand (and accept) that his mother was not just another innocent victim of his father, but a participant in a sadomasochistic relationship in which he, their child, was a pawn. He also comes to understand (and accept) that she was more than this, more than his version of her.
At Last contains what is, for me, the single most moving moment in the five novels. Greeted by his son, Thomas, with a joke about Aladdin and bin Laden, "Patrick burst out laughing and kissed him on the forehead." In another context, this fleeting moment of love between a father and a son might be seen as sentimental. Having read the rest of the novels, however, one can appreciate it for what it is: something almost miraculously positive.
Readers who do not know the other novels in what is now the Melrose Quintet will still enjoy At Last's humour, thoughtfulness, amusing characterizations and intelligence. They will be able to follow the story – such as it is – easily. But they will miss the nuances that make this a fitting ending (if it is the ending) to a very impressive sequence of novels.
Contributing reviewer André Alexis's most recent novel is Asylum.