Earlier this evening, I finished At Last by Edward St Aubyn. I started thinking about the post I would write about it as I read the final pages and it struck me that it is quite similar in one sense to another book I finished a few weeks ago and never got around to posting about: Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Each book, in its own way, was quite hideous and ghastly. I don't really mean that as a criticism, because in each case it is part of what made these books what they are.
Nevertheless, I found both books difficult to stomach at times. At Last is full of nasty, awful, mean, selfish and vicious people. Really, really horrible. The whole book takes place at the funeral of a person who will not necessarily be missed or mourned by all, and interspersed with descriptions of the funeral are stories about her life through the perspective of various friends and relations. More and more is slowly uncovered about who she was, mostly through the prism of her son figuring out how he feels towards her.
There have been times in my life (sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for several months) when I have been unable to read sad or "difficult" books. I am glad this is not one of those times because it really is a fantastic book. Despite this, I don't have the emotional attachment to it that I have had to other books, such as The Legacy or When God Was A Rabbit. On an intellectual level I liked it a lot. As with Augusten Burrows, I admire St Aubyn's ability to keep me compelled to read something so nasty and awful. And I should mention that it is really quite funny and clever in parts too. Since finishing the book, I have discovered it is the fifth in a series about the same family. Honestly, I cannot bear the thought of reading any more about these people.
Once Upon A River... such a drifting kind of book... it's about a young woman (still high school age) who runs away from home after her father dies. She is really too young to cope with all that has been thrust upon her, and her actions show her to be a child with a strangely tough and independent streak. Her life becomes something that I found profoundly sad. Her vulnerability is so evident that it's just heartbreaking to watch her being taken advantage of over and over again.
It's funny because before writing this out I thought the tough bits were the deer hunting and animal skinning scenes (it feels like there is one almost every 10 pages) but actually what upset me a lot more were the displays of cruelty from one human being to another. The hunting and skinning is quite graphic, and fairly relentless but they work as an undercurrent to the book's main idea about the cruelty toward the vulnerable protagonist.
I am sure it will sound odd at this point, but I think this is a truly beautiful book. There are some awfully tough scenes in it, but there are also beautiful, tranquil moods and small triumphs and tactile pleasures and moments of healing and pools of calm. I am glad I have given myself this opportunity to think about Once Upon A River a little more deeply, because I think it is a thoughtful, late bloomer kind of book, only fully appreciated after the fact.