The Short Version: The course of a single day in the South of France at the Melrose family ‘chateau’ as they prepare to host a small dinner party.
The Review: I’m keeping the summary short because, really, that’s what the novel is ‘about’ – it’s a very simple story, novella-length really. Of course, it’s so much more than that.
Much like with The Alexandria Quartet, I’m treating each of these novels as an individual despite reading them in a collected edition. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do that at the outset, despite intending to treat this collection as “this summer’s Durrell” – but after finishing the first novel (almost by surprise) on the train this morning, I realized that I had to take a moment and digest it and treat it as its own piece.
Firstly, a word on style and narration. I wrote a ghost story in high school and found myself experimenting with a sort of fluid transition between characters. The scene that sticks in my mind was a woman getting out of her car and seeing her brother across the yard and the following sentence, in a very smooth and almost unnoticable motion, was the brother seeing the sister. I have always been struck by the way I felt upon re-reading that sentence… and as a result, I was utterly bewitched by St. Aubyn’s writing in this novel. Because that’s what he does. It’s hard to explain without an excerpt, so here’s an example:
Oh, my God, there was Victor in the kitchen, dressed like an advertisement as usual. She gave him a breezy and confident wave through the window.
Victor had finally summoned the courage to call Anne, when he heard the sound of feet on the gravel outside and saw Eleanor waving at him eagerly. Jumping up and down, crossing and uncrossing her arms above her head…
That’s a subtle example but the first one I could think of. It’s also great because it shows some of the humor too: the drug-addled Elizabeth “leisurely” waving is, in fact, a limbs-akimbo manic gesture to the observing Victor. But it’s that smooth shift between characters that really grabbed me. It works well at the dinner party as well, almost like a camera circling round the table and as it passes by we get snatches of what the individuals are thinking. It’s acerbically witty and deeply felt: the novel has the menace of a Pinter play or a Hitchcock film.
I wrote recently about a novel that attempted to capture the menace of Pinter but being unable to do so because it wasn’t onstage. I find myself proved wrong here: this novel succeeds in capturing that terrifying silence between words… and I almost don’t know how he does it. Sometimes, it’s a little gesture or phrase – describing David’s smile as baring his teeth and then repeating the image makes him almost more bogeyman than human being. And good lord, that’s exactly what he is.
The characters are all so vivid even in their somewhat exaggerated forms, but David is the figure who sticks out. The opening image of him standing on the patio smoking a cigar in his bathrobe and pajamas, wearing big dark sunglasses and using the hose to torture ants…. It’s a fascinating and indelible image. He’s introduced to us not as a human being but as a cruel mockery of one, like a demon who slipped into someone’s skin and doesn’t quite know how to wear it. It’s confirmed later, of course, when he picks up Patrick by the ears or torments his wife Elizabeth or slides the knife up Bridget’s leg… or when he beats and then rapes Patrick.
Yeah. It took me a moment and two re-reads to realize what had happened. It was as astonishing to me as it was to Patrick, who clearly has no frame of reference for what had occurred. And the end of the novel leads one to believe that it may happen again. The ease with which David scales greater and greater heights of cruelty… and the way people flock to him. The only satisfying moment, the only happy moment in the novel is when Anna & Victor leave and there is a feeling ofescapelike a breeze through the back door or a letting out a breath after you exit a tunnel. They’re certainly not a totally content couple and have their problems, but the moment at the end where they arrive back home and have an almost childish, giddy sexual release feels like the only bright spot in the whole story.
But it’s the sort of darkness, the sort of dark story that you don’t so much mind because it is so well-written. It’s deeply uncomfortable, the various cruelties perpetrated upon others and upon themselves – Elizabeth is too drug-addled and sodden with booze to care for her son or herself and it almost makes her a joke instead of a truly tragic individual – are heart-wrenching, and just the parental neglect/abuse alone is enough to want to scream… but St. Aubyn is such a smart writer and so blackly hilarious that, as I said, the novel’s end snuck up on me. Suddenly I was ten pages intoBad News without even realizing.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I am captivated by St. Aubyn’s writing, even in the face of truly terrible people and truly horrific activities. It felt like a perfect summer read, although I rather wish I’d been reading it while sitting on a patio somewhere with sunglasses and a cold drink. But then, isn’t that what any summer novel ought to make you feel?