Fro the author of the Patrick Melrose novels, a novel following three close friends and their circle through a year of extraordinary transformation, reflecting on nature, nurture, inquiry, perception, and the myriad ways we try to understand what it means to be alive.
St Aubyn inhabits the perspective of these characters and many more, packing the book’s jet-set itinerary with momentously everyday incident (cancer, pregnancy) and extravagantly comic set pieces: at one point, a Vatican priest, sent to play hardball with Hunter over a particularly outlandish business deal, instead loses his resolve at a Kraftwerk gig at the entrepreneur’s south of France retreat. The Melrose novels liked to hop around, too, and in some ways St Aubyn is in his comfort zone here ... Yet St Aubyn’s novels seem to run aground whenever their controlling presence isn’t a single character à la Patrick, but an idea – here, the need for humility before unknown unknowns from ecosystems to human unpredictability. If it can be very funny, St Aubyn’s suavely reportorial style also shrinkwraps the emotions of his characters, as if he’s a posh airport novelist ... The increasingly hectic plot ultimately gives you the sense of St Aubyn spinning plates while trying to back his way into an exit. Yet the ending had me anxiously double-checking my proof against the finished copy; expectations are only another thing St Aubyn is playing with here.
Edward St Aubyn is the literary equivalent of a kitmurvy. Except he isn’t on his second novel: he’s on his tenth, and he still can’t seem to hit the ball. But he’s been swanning around the course for so long now that readers assume he must be good, mustn’t he? And besides, he’s got all the swanky kit ... You’ll just have to imagine the overwriting and the similes, but trust me, they are legion ... That said, St Aubyn himself doesn’t seem to care much about plot. What he is really here to do is to impart, at length, his opinions on rewilding, schizophrenia and the importance of a holistic approach to treating brain tumours. I have no stake in any of the arguments he so one-sidedly propounds. But I do know that they don’t belong in a novel, passed off as the views of his characters ... As far as technique goes, St Aubyn is like someone who doesn’t take a shopping basket because he just needs a pint of milk – then keeps adding more things until he’s dropping stuff all over the place. Storylines and characters are introduced at unwieldy length, only to disappear for half the novel before cursorily resurfacing when the author suddenly appears to remember them. Narration mostly takes place inside someone’s head while they go for a walk or look out a car window. Action is delivered as stultifying recollection. None of the characters comes to life.Nothing in this novel rings true ... Nothing – except for one single, heartbreaking storyline: the schizophrenic Sebastian’s sessions with Martin. Martin refuses to dismiss Sebastian’s paranoid babble as nonsense, listening carefully for oblique, symbolic meaning. The trust that tentatively builds between them is beautifully observed.
Double Blind is an ambitious novel of big ideas about genetic determinism, heritability, the usefulness of psychotherapy, the effects of climate change and the role of technology in neuroscience. Then there are the old favourites: the allure of great wealth, glamorous locations and mind-altering Class A drugs, all of which continue to enthral St Aubyn ... There are more threads and characters in an increasingly unsatisfactory story, including a pompous cardinal, a naive Franciscan monk and a bleakly deterministic oncologist, who are further foils for St Aubyn’s big ideas ... His sharp ear for dialogue and his observation of people’s behaviour hover between funny, disdainful and downright sneering - he always was a snob - while his evocation of smoking heroin is nothing less than a full-on seduction ... His prose can be mesmerising at times, but not when his characters veer into rambling interior monologues about consciousness and the creation of the universe. That’s just showing off - and the ending is a washout. The problem remains that in Melrose, St Aubyn succeeded in transforming his own traumatic life experience into something extraordinarily and powerfully convincing, and it may be, quite simply, that he is incapable of doing that with the lives of anyone else but himself.