The opening of Edward St Aubyn’s new novel, Double Blind, is as beautiful as it is unexpected. Francis is taking a walk near his cottage, noticing “the red defiance and yellow lethargy of decaying leaves, and the crows rasping in a nearby field”. He notes the “scent of growing fungus and sodden moss” and he glories in his feelings of being part of the life of nature around him. To those of us familiar with St Aubyn’s Melrose novels, this is a world away from the hedonistic, tortured, emotionally confused life of the rich drug-taker. This appears to be a new turn, a new world, away from his semi-autobiographical past novels.
It is indeed.
Francis, a rewilder, has just fallen in love with Olivia, a biologist. Olivia, the adopted child of psychotherapists, has a best friend (Lucy) on her way back to England from America. Lucy has just been headhunted from a consulting firm by Hunter, a drug-taking (yes, that does appear) multi-millionaire (made his money in hedge funds) to work for his “digital, technological and scientific venture capital firm”. Then there is Sebastian, Olivia’s father’s schizophrenic patient, who might be… well if you know your Shakespeare, there’s a clue in the names. And there’s naked Hope, too, but you don’t really need to know much about her.
There is no doubt that this is a very clever book. St Aubyn has always been a clever writer, but in this novel he wears his learning very heavily. In a bizarre way it reads more like the first novel of an intellectual French Sciences Po student than a novel by an established master of the art. The characters talk in a stilted, formal way, always making some esoteric point. If, however, you are after a novel of ideas, rather than a novel of or from the heart, there are an awful lot of ideas to be thinking about. The brief description of characters above gives you some idea of the concerns St Aubyn mulls over: rewilding, psychotherapy, the brain versus the mind, money, science, morality (a little), homeopathy versus traditional medicine versus self-medication.
One of the subplots – in which Hunter’s venture capital firm brain-scans a monk, so holy he is a mystic – has a pop at the Catholic church. However the only truly enchanting character in the book is Father Guido, a gentle, childlike man who keeps getting drunk on lemonade (margaritas) and iced coffee (espresso martinis). He is a true innocent abroad, baffled by the luxury in Hunter’s house, and revelling in being able to raise and lower an electronic blind in a hotel to the point that he wonders whether he is sinning in enjoying the pleasure so much.
Perhaps the novel would be more successful if there were fewer ideas being chewed over and spat out. The “questioning the relationship between my brain and my mind” throws up some interesting ideas. “Not only was the brain not the mind, but an image of the brain was not the brain.” Magritte put it more simply: Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Between Lucy’s tumour, and the mystic’s brain scan, and the difficulty of telling your mind not to think about your brain, even though your brain is your mind – or is it? – there is much food for thought. But stirred in with all the other issues and ideas the novel is concerned with, even the beauty of St Aubyn’s prose when writing about nature, it was not enough to enchant this reviewer.
St Aubyn has won numerous awards for his novels – the Betty Trask for the first of his Melrose novels, and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Lost for Words, his satire on book prizes (how meta can you get?). The greatest disappointment in this novel is that St Aubyn appears to have lost his humour; in earlier novels he could make his readers laugh despite the torture and gloom of his subject matter, and he could make even the most depraved of his characters believable – at times even likeable. The only character in this book one would want to have to dinner is Father Guido, and the jokes are too few and far between to lighten the heavy load of ideas which burden the book.
Sophia Waugh is the author of Cooking People: The Writers Who Taught the English How to Eat