Dunbar: Edward St Aubyn

Dunbar, a retelling of King Lear, is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.[1] Edward St Aubyn sets the story in the present with the King Lear character as a media mogul, Dunbar (shades of Rupert Murdoch?).

Dunbar is in an old people’s home, where he has been put by his daughters, Megan and Abigail. Although he had handed over his media empire to the two women, he has kept some control. Megan and Abigail want to take over the empire completely. So they persuade his physician, Dr. Bob with whom they are both having an affair, to medicate Dunbar and keep him mentally incapacitated.

However, it isn’t so easy to outwit Dunbar. He manages to escape from the home with some help from Peter, an alcoholic comedian. It is the middle of winter, and the two men eventually part ways, Peter heading back to the comfort of a pub and Dunbar trying to make it over the pass so he can wrest his empire back from his daughters.

Megan and Abigail, informed by the home that their father has escaped, are desperate to find him. The knives are out: they want Dunbar dead. But his youngest daughter Florence, Dunbar’s child with Catherine, his second wife who died in a car accident, is also looking for him. Florence had turned her back on Dunbar’s wealth and power, something he took personally, and the two haven’t spoken in years. Now Dunbar starts to realize that she is one of the few who actually cares about him.

Although we know the way the story plays out, Edward St Aubyn keeps us engaged to the end. But the only interesting character in the book is Dunbar himself. St Aubyn paints a convincing portrait of a man who was once respected and feared, a man who is used to having his way, but who is now floundering, trying to find his way out of the fog that envelops his mind.

The other characters are fairly two-dimensional. Abigail and Megan, the Regan and Goneril characters, are so consistently awful that they are cartoonish, and at some point towards the end I stopped believing in them. Florence, the Cordelia character, is a little too good.

St Aubyn sticks quite closely to the play but I found the book a little superficial. There have been novels based on King Lear in the past which have really delved into the dynamics between the characters (Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres comes to mind). This was more of a quick read, and I didn’t find it as engaging as the others in this series (see footnote below).


[1] Dunbar is part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press, a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays. Also reviewed on this site: Jeanette Winterson’s reworking of The Winter’s Tale,The Gap of Time; Margaret Atwood’s reworking of The Tempest, Hag-Seed; and Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth.

One thought on “Dunbar: Edward St Aubyn

  1. Pingback: Hag-Seed: Magaret Atwood – Talking About Books

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