At Last (Edward St. Aubyn) / The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce)

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Recently I read At Last by Edward St. Aubyn and Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry back to back. Oddly enough, it gave each of them new life and a new perspective. Joyce’s book is the first Booker longlistee I’ve managed to get hold of, so I read it despite not being particularly excited about it.

Harold Joyce is a retiree who receives a letter from an old friend who is dying. When he sets off to the postbox to send her a letter, he ends up actually setting out on a pilgrimage all the way from bottom to top of England. While the writing is quite good, and Joyce’s insights are written with empathy and conviction, I couldn’t help feeling that the book’s central idea–that suffering is universal; that everyone is carrying around some pain–was something that most people discover at more or less the moment they grow out of teenage navel-gazing. Don’t they? Are there really people who don’t get it until they’re 65? Or is the point really that Harold has been an overgrown teenager all these years. Perhaps, but the point is belaboured.

The ending–and even the journey–are predictably unadventurous. The book’s promise perks up when Harold decides that the purest way of making the pilgrimage is without money, sleeping outside and getting whatever food he can, but it gets rather too much of the Chicken Soup for the Booker Prize treatment and is not nearly as interesting as it could be. Where Joyce could have explored the difficulties and trials of this decision, it’s all rather too uplifting. They eat mushrooms, wild greens, and even rabbits and birds. It all sounds so easy, so pastoral. But surely they were starving, not to mention constantly damp and uncomfortable. Harold’s blisters make big news, but the rest of the pain is all emotional. Very glossy and uplifting, but disappointing. This purist decision could have been a great way into exploring so many aspects of modern life and modern people, but instead it’s very safe, very Radio 4 (disclaimer: I love Radio 4, but not always its vaseline-lensed artistic take on modern Britain), and rather a surprising choice for the Booker longlist.

The St. Aubyn, in which a load of depressed rich people gather at a funeral, rubbed me the wrong way to start with. All the characters seemed to be camp robots: bitter, sardonic, entitled, and entirely without usefulness. Everyone started out as witty and supercilious as Lady Bracknell–something that appeals only in very small doses—and about as emotionally intelligent as a coffin. Patrick Melrose, familiar to many readers (although not me) from St. Aubyn’s highly acclaimed series about him, is at his mother’s funeral. His ex-wife Mary—one of the few human characters in the early part—has largely arranged the funeral on her own, and indeed was the only person to visit Eleanor in her last couple of years, for reasons we learn as the novel progresses (although I suspect readers of the other books in the series might already know). Various miserable old crones and wealthy or impoverished fakes have shown up at the funeral, seemingly interested only in being as nasty as possible, while Patrick reflects on the terrible evil perpetrated by his father, and his mother’s dreadful sin of omission in not protecting him from it.

At Last by Edward St Aubyn

At Last really takes off, though, when the funeral is over and Patrick’s two small boys come to the after-party. Nobody, Patrick and Mary aside, appears to have the slightest interest in children, or indeed in anyone else at all, so Patrick’s transforming love for his children—and the end of a hideous cycle of violence—redeems the novel. Up until this point Patrick seems to be experiencing all the other characters as “adults”—a homogenous mass of undifferentiated voices, none of which is capable of being pleasant, let alone kind—from a child’s perspective. But with the sudden change in pace with the two boys, the novel breaks out from its one-dimensional cage and puffs up with real, vital human feeling.

Reading the two books together emphasised different aspects from those I might otherwise have focused on. The basic message is that all the parents in both books have always failed their children. People, the novels are telling us, are damaged by the failures of communication, the pain of love withheld, and the evil that is passed from generation to generation. It takes thought, courage, determination and strength not to continue this cycle of hurt. What’s intriguing is that At Last manages to salvage a happy ending (or at least a positive future) from this without being sentimental, while Pilgrimage’s family has already had the tragedy but ends on a much sappier note. Neither book really wowed me, but the interplay of the two revealed hidden corners.

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