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Dunbar by Edward St, Aubyn

Published by Crown Publishing/Hogarth on Oct. 3, 2017

Dunbar is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of novels that are — based on? inspired by? completely unrelated to? — a Shakespeare play. The publisher’s website uses the word “retelling” but that isn’t the most accurate descriptor, based on the novels in the series that I’ve read.

Dunbar shares some elements with King Lear (descent into madness, bequeathing a kingdom to two daughters while ignoring a third, family strife), but the story is more comedy than tragedy. The kingdom is a corporate empire; battles are waged by trading firms and corporate raiders rather than armies. Since no author is going to improve on Shakespeare, I think it best to view Dunbar as “inspired by” Lear and then ignore the inspiration entirely, reading the novel as a literary work that stands on its own. From that perspective, I give Edward St. Aubyn credit for writing a story that is amusing and entertaining if not particularly deep.

Henry Dunbar is off his meds, but only because he spit them into a plant next to his institutional bed. Dunbar is a media mogul, perhaps the world’s most powerful person, but his haughty daughters Abigail and Megan are making him take a “lovely long holiday” at a psychiatric hospital. Their goal is to take the Dunbar Trust private again, giving them control over the vast media organization. Dunbar’s daughter Florence, half-sister of Abigail and Megan, is kept in the dark about her father’s location as well as the future of the family business.

Complicit in Henry’s institutionalization is Dr. Bob, with whom both Megan and Abigail are enjoying sadistic sex, and who has been promised a seat on the Board and a healthy salary. But Dr. Bob is even more Machiavellian than the sisters, setting up a troika of self-interested villains for the reader to root against.

Not that Dunbar deserves the reader’s cheers. Dunbar might deserve a measure of pity, but his lifelong narcissism is largely to blame for his current state of lonely emptiness. His only friend (he’s betrayed all his past friends) is newly acquired, another patient who has gone off his meds and who facilitates Dunbar’s escape. But the friend only wants to escape to the nearest pub, while Dunbar (as always) has grander ambitions.

St. Aubyn uses dry British wit to make Dunbar the kind of modern family drama that exposes the dark side of each relevant family member. The two evil daughters only have a dark side, and St. Aubyn exploits their pettiness and self-absorption to substantial comedic effect, while never quite making them convincing characters. Characters in comedies are often exaggerated to make a point, but one downside to turning a Shakespearean tragedy into a comedy is that the story’s tragic aspects demand true villains and a truly tragic hero, not caricatures.

The plot involves a good bit of corporate intrigue, back-stabbing, and betrayal as various forces vie for control of Dunbar Trust. The plot’s focus, however, is on family intrigue. The ending abruptly veers toward darkness (St. Aubyn didn’t have much choice about that if he wanted to do even the most abstract retelling of Lear), but the darkness is incongruous, given that the story is played for laughs until that point. Nor is Dunbar a particularly meaty novel, despite its themes of betrayal. As a comedy, however, the story succeeds, and St. Aubyn’s prose is always a pleasure to read.


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