Dunbar is this sixth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that challenges contemporary authors to reimagine and recontextualize Shakespeare. Edward St. Aubyn brings King Lear to life as a media mogul named Dunbar, somewhat of a Canadian Murdoch.
Dunbar opens with our mogul locked up in a sanitarium spitting out his meds along with his new friend, Peter, a fellow inmate and obvious dipsomaniac with whom he escapes from Meadowmeade. He is soon pursued by his faithless daughters who locked him up with the connivance of their lover, Dr. Bob. Dr. Bob’s pharmacopeia is in frequent use, but his masterstroke was inducing a psychic break that led to Dunbar’s commitment. Dunbar’s youngest daughter, Florence is also searching for him, she loves him and hopes to rescue him.
There is a manic and often sardonic humor in Dunbar that helps the story escape the bleak bitterness of the sisters and Dunbar, all malevolent people. That humor is why I thought St. Aubyn was an inspired choice. After all, King Lear has nothing on the Patrick Melrose family and those stories sparkle.
So why am I disappointed? I guess I wish St. Aubyn had taken more liberties. It is so obviously Lear. I loved how well Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed took us into The Tempest in a way that did not replicate the play. Dunbar is too literal, too close to Lear. I wanted a story inspired by, not just moved into a different milieu.
Then there are the conspirators. So one-dimensional. Worse, like B-movie villains, they openly discuss their machinations in great detail. It’s cartoonish or like something from a seventeenth-century play. The only saving grace is that St. Aubyn can write with manic humor. The scenes with Peter who is the wise fool and friend to the powerless Dunbar are brilliant. The rest is not.
I received an advance e-galley of Dunbar from the publisher through NetGalley.
- Dunbar at Penguin Random House
- Hogarth Shakespeare series at Penguin Random House
- NY Times article on the Hogarth Shakespeare series
- Edward St. Aubyn on Reimagining Shakespeare at The New York Times.