Forgiveness in Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels

This week I’ve waded deep into the world of Patrick Melrose. He’s from the upper […]

David Peterson / 9.25.15

This week I’ve waded deep into the world of Patrick Melrose. He’s from the upper crust in Britain, and if his world of ten thousand dollar weekend splurges in NYC and posh dinner parties in the English countryside aren’t quite applicable to my life, the pressure he feels to interpret and weave together his threads of experience into a meaningful story (and an ugly form of self-absorption that only serves to breed dread and guilt) most definitely are.

Edward St. Aubyn’s acclaimed series of novels pick up with Patrick at the age of five and carries him through an abusive relationship with his father, a dark battle with drug addiction and his hopeful attempt to make it all right as a father of two. The defining relationship of the series is that of Patrick with his father. He compares his father’s eyes to a gecko’s tongue in the first novel, and the gecko pops up throughout the other books – Patrick can’t escape the piercing glance of his father.

sandlotHe had watched his father’s eyes behind their dark glasses. They moved from object to object and person to person,pausing for a moment on each and seeming to steal something vital from them, with a quick adhesive glance, like the flickering of a gecko’s tongue. When he was with his father, Patrick looked at everything seriously, hoping he looked serious to anyone who might watch his eyes, as he had watched his father’s.

You can see the wrenching mix of admiration and intimidation he feels toward his father in that passage, and the abuse he endures from him only accent the emotions there.

In one of her reviews for the Times, Michiko Kakutani summarized the effects of the relationship on Patrick:

In the Melrose novels, we learn, Patrick embraced the art of detachment as a child — it was the one way he could try to cope with his father’s attacks — and whenever he is under pressure, the impulse returns: to stand back, “observing everything, chattering to himself in different voices, circling the unacceptable feelings” as a means of control. The hardest addiction of all, he observes, is not heroin, but irony, “that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.”

In a memorable passage from the third novel in the series, Patrick talks about the difficulty of forgiving his father with a close friend:

‘Have you forgiven your father?’ asked Anne.

‘Oddly enough, you’ve caught me on the right evening. A week ago I would have lied or said something dismissive, but I was just describing over dinner exactly what I had to forgive my father.’


‘Well,’ said Patrick, ‘over dinner I was rather against forgiveness, and I still think that it’s detachment rather than appeasement that will set me free, but if I could imagine a mercy that was purely human, and not one that rested on the Greatest Story Ever Told, I might extend it to my father for being so unhappy. I just can’t do it out of piety. I’ve had enough near-death experiences to last me a lifetime, and not once was I greeted by a white-robed figure at the end of a tunnel – or only once and he turned out to be an exhausted junior doctor in the emergency ward of the Charing Cross Hospital. There may be something to this idea that you have to be broken in order to be renewed, but renewal doesn’t have to consist of a lot of phoney reconciliations!’

‘What about genuine ones?’ said Anne.

‘What impresses me more than the repulsive superstition that I should turn the other cheek, is the intense unhappiness my father lived with. I ran across a diary his mother wrote during the First World War. After pages of gossip and a long passage about how marvelously they’d managed to keep up the standards at some large country house, defying the Kaiser with the perfection of their cucumber sandwiches, there are two short sentences: “Geoffrey wounded again,” about her husband in the trenches, and “David has rickets”, about her son at his prep school. Presumably he was not just suffering from malnutrition, but being assaulted by paedophiliac schoolmasters and beaten by older boys. This very traditional combination of maternal coldness and official perversion helped to make him the splendid man he turned into, but to forgive someone, one would have to be convinced that they’d made some effort to change the disastrous course that genetics, class or upbringing proposed for them.’

‘If he’d changed course, he wouldn’t need forgiving,’ said Anne. ‘That’s the whole deal with forgiving. Anyhow, I don’t say you’re wrong not to forgive him, but you can’t stay stuck with this hatred.’


Moving through the passage, Patrick’s words resonate, and so do Anne’s – she shows remarkable care and tact in the encounter. He seeks “purely human mercy,” but we know there’s no such thing, especially in a form powerful enough to cover his father’s transgressions. Yet, Patrick distrusts the Bible and “phoney reconciliations.” Who wouldn’t after enduring years of sexual abuse from your own dad? The powerlessness he feels around truly letting go of his hatred for his father is understandable, as are his doubts about his own power to enact any change in his memory or feel true forgiveness. These are the things that only God’s grace can account for. Anne’s right, “If he’d changed course, he wouldn’t need forgiveness.” If we were truly in control, we wouldn’t need God. But, as we stumble down “the disastrous course that genetics, class or upbringing” have paved so unevenly for us, we all need the forgiveness that could make our paths straight.