AT LAST. By Edward St. Aubyn. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 267 pages. $25.
In the closing pages of “At Last,” the final volume of what is now a quintet, Edward St. Aubyn’s alter-ego, Patrick Melrose, thinks, “The idea of a voluntary life had always struck him as extravagant. Everything was conditioned by what had gone before. ... What would it be like to react to nothing and respond to everything?”
Although the action of “At Last” takes place on a single day — the day of Melrose’s mother’s funeral — it ranges in flashbacks over the course of his life. St. Aubyn writes about the ways that early faults and crimes ricochet through the years. Can anyone recover from the past, Patrick often wonders. The notion of ongoing recovery — in Patrick’s case, from an abused childhood, early heroin addiction, and later alcohol dependency — is central to the Melrose story.
How Patrick Melrose does and does not get out from under this template has been the theme of St. Aubyn’s magnificent Melrose books.
St. Aubyn convenes his cast of mourners and hangers-on at a South London crematorium. Readers of the Melrose books have a long history with many of these characters, but those new to the series will catch on easily. As always in St. Aubyn’s books, the distinct flavor comes from juxtaposition and incongruity.
At this most solemn of occasions, staged at a rather tatty venue, the conversation is bright and callous. Given the heavy weather of Patrick’s family pathology and subsequent self-abuse, the frequent hilarity of St. Aubyn’s approach is remarkable.
The connection between net worth and self-worth is never far from anyone’s mind in this rarefied environment, but Patrick understands money to be just part of the “packaging” of his own life. Through the course of a funeral service (brilliantly conveyed by a point of view that flits from guest to guest), an after-party and finally a return to the lonely bedsit where he lives, Patrick drags “fragments out of the dark” and acknowledges them. He mourns his mother with tenderness and rigor and in the end admits her part in the wreckage of his childhood. But the more important emotions at work, as St. Aubyn closes the book on Patrick, are compassion and hope.
In the last act of his quintet, Patrick looks to a better future, has a “change of mind” and dials the number of his own children.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes, an English instructor at the College of Charleston