The fifth of Edward St Aubyn's autobiographical novels about Patrick Melrose - a brilliant, damaged and tormented ex-junkie - opens at his mother's funeral. As the title indicates, this is both a longed-for event and a novel about what can be shored against the ruin of someone born to be one of fortune's favourites.
The previous novel in the sequence, Mother's Milk, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and, in the opinion of many, should have won. That it did not is perhaps the result of a lingering prejudice against rich, upper-class novelists. Given that some of our most enduring fiction has been written by equally privileged authors, ranging from Anthony Powell and Vladimir Nabokov to Mary Wesley and Nancy Mitford, this might seem odd. When I and a couple of other critics began to champion St Aubyn's work, however, it felt like rowing against a tide. So what if it was mordantly witty and told a shocking, autobiographical tale about being raped by his father as a child? High-octane wit married to searing despair is nonetheless a potent cocktail, and St Aubyn has finally moved from cult author to mainstream presence.
With timely stylishness, At Last is set on the day of another royal wedding, that of Prince Charles. With both of his detested and detestable parents dead, Melrose might be able to lay some demons to rest. His existential anguish, which drugs, drink and womanising could not anaesthetise, has been replaced by something approaching sobriety.
Inevitably, the clash between repulsively sophisticated socialites and New Age cranks leads to some delicious black comedy (though calling your most acerbic observer Nicholas Pratt is overegging it somewhat). Pratt, who opens the novel with a long, Wildean monologue, is a tour de force whose waspishness alone makes the novel worth the cover price. "Try not to be bitter about the money," he advises Patrick, before hobbling off to his own death.
Putting up a character even more unpleasant than your protagonist is a clever device; so are the "resolute fools", such as Annette, who filled the last days of Eleanor, Patrick's mother. A venomous irony leavens any sense of tragedy for an heiress who, after ruining the life of her son, had finally been left with "no speech, no movement, no sex, no drugs, no travel, no spending, hardly any food: just alone in the silent contemplation of her thoughts". This is the modern obverse of the fabled transatlantic marriages between English nobility and American wealth, as first described by novelists such as Frances Hodgson Burnett and now celebrated by Tatler. Patrick may be ruined, but his mother's family thought nothing of buying Marie Antoinette's black marble bath, nor of demolishing 27 village houses in order to build their own dream of luxury. Nothing in their lives is ordinary. His aunt Nancy sums it up thus: "Mummy only ever had one car accident in her entire life, but even then, when she was hanging upside-down in the buckled metal, she had the Infanta of Spain dangling next to her." Eleanor, in thrall to New Age charlatans, has disinherited Patrick to leave everything to her appalling guru.
The loss of the exquisite house in France feels more like a bereavement to Patrick than the loss of his mother. By now sufficiently self-aware
to realise that his decisions and revisions of opinion are caused by patterns of addictive behaviour, he is a kind of modern Dorian Grey, whose life in hell is at least enlivened by his own intelligence and by the perception that the obsession with money is repellent. Living in a bedsit, using his talents to work as a barrister, Patrick is still a ruined man. Yet there is a final twist, which only the irony of being the descendant of a wealthy ancestor can deliver.
For all its ferociously funny riffing on the rich, and on the legacy of childhood abuse, At Last is less formally interesting than St Aubyn's previous novels. It is as if, released from the engine of hatred and misery that powered his earlier work, he has lost the very qualities that made his prose so memorable and uncomfortable. In the post-parental realm, he is able to achieve a margin of freedom. A better, kinder, duller person, he may be freed from the milieu he inherited, but that causes the reader to ask whether happiness will write white. l
Edward St Aubyn
Picador, 272pp, £16.99
Amanda Craig's most recent novel is "Hearts and Minds" (Abacus, £7.99)