It would be lazy to describe Self Help as this year’s Mother’s Milk (and inaccurate: it’s twice as long to begin with), so let me be the first to say that Self Help is not this year’s Mother’s Milk, although it is a peculiarly English tragicomic story of how your family trips you up, written by an Edward with an unusual surname.
And it does seem very English despite being set largely in Paris, New York and St Petersburg. Something about Docx’s elegantly detailed prose style sees to that, though it doesn’t detract from the richness of detail about the new Russia, which smacks more of good and true personal understanding than of dry research.
We join the novel with Gabriel Glover, early-thirtysomething Londoner and twin of Isabella, catching a plane to Russia to see his mother Maria, after a worrying conversation which turns from well-observed maternalisms (“‘You are still with Lina?’ ‘Since we spoke yesterday? Am I still with Lina since this time yesterday? Yeah, since yesterday I’m still with Lina. Same as the last four years'”) to urgent intimations of mortality (“He felt her reaching in for his heart. He felt his heart uncoil”). And similarly, the story diverts almost immediately from the languid wit of its opening chapters:
He walked swiftly across the vast immigration hall – the high two-tone walls, light Soviet tan at the base and dark Soviet mahogany at the top. There were only two queues for non-residents. He had hoped for three or four. The first was shorter but comprised disorderly families and excited tourists; the second was mainly businessmen, money people. Follow the money. Money, after all, had won.
(and its jaunty cover) to an overall sober and intense study of a splintered family. At the other apex is Nicholas, a new archetype in Bad Dads, who abandoned Maria and the twins to live off his father’s inheritance and swan around Paris, trying to paint and getting bi-curious. There’s also an estranged Russian relative; a junky who goes cold turkey in some of the most vivid heroin writing since (sorry, but it is) Edward St Aubyn’s Bad News; and a background chorus of colleagues, lovers and friends, harmonising nicely.
The plot essentially turns on getting Gabriel and Isabella together and to meet up with the Russian stranger and Nicholas, and I admit I could have done with this happening before page 400, with another hundred to go before the final (appropriately dramatic) revelation. Until then, there’s a good deal of knotty family history to be despatched, less shown than told via internal monologues and explanatory conversations. To me the book came most alive when Docx allowed his cynical wit to surface, with rants by errant father Nicholas:
Alessandro could not sing, could not dance, could not act, could not even mime … and yet, like more or less everyone he met under thirty-five these days, he firmly believed he had talent – a precious and precarious gift that needed sensitive nurturing in order for it to blossom into the hardy rose of genius.
The final – I promise – comparison with Edward St Aubyn which occurs is in wondering how much of the portrait of a tyrannical father is based on fact; on how big a dose of autobiography the novel contains. The reader can’t help observing that not only does Gabriel Glover have a physical resemblance to Docx, but that the story and writing are most vivid when viewed through his eyes. And then there is the dedication, to Docx’s mother, “who taught me what matters and what does not.” Of Dad: no mention.