book review: Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

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DUNBAR by Edward St. Aubyn
★★★☆☆
Hogarth Shakespeare, October 2017

Dunbar is the sixth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, but it was actually my first. (No, I haven’t read Hag-Seed.) So it wasn’t a desire to keep up with the Hogarth series that drove me to click ‘request’ on this title – I was drawn to it because for whatever reason I just really, really like King Lear.

The main question on my mind as I was reading was: what exactly is the purpose of a retelling? I don’t think there’s ever going to be a definitive consensus on this subject, as I’m sure some of us prefer our retellings on the more literal side, while others prefer them to be more abstract. But in general, I’d say that for a retelling to be a success, that the book should pay homage to the original while still adding something new to the story – maybe exploring certain themes present in the original in greater depth.

So with that in mind, how did Dunbar fare? I can’t quite make up my mind. Dunbar is a contemporary spin on the tale in which the titular figure is a Canadian media mogul, whose company is currently being usurped by his two vindictive daughters, Abby and Megan. The story begins in medias res, with Henry Dunbar in a care home somewhere outside Manchester, telling the story of how he was betrayed by his two power-hungry daughters, and how he regrets betraying his other, loyal daughter, Florence, by cutting her out of the trust.

While it doesn’t follow King Lear to a T, it really only ever deviates by omission. (The subplot with Edgar and Edmund isn’t really present at all.) But where it zeroes in on the relationship between Lear and his daughters, Dunbar is an extremely literal retelling. I mean, Regan is actually called Megan. On the one hand, it was done very well, and on the other, there wasn’t a whole lot left to the imagination.

Interestingly, one facet of Lear that I thought went unexplored in Dunbar is actually one of its most salient themes: the fraught balance between fate and chaos – how much of our human nature is free will and how much is predetermined by planetary influence? The passages in which Henry Dunbar grapples with his ‘madness’ I thought were some of the weakest, and they really missed the opportunity to delve into this theme. Instead, this is a very stripped down King Lear, which ostensibly focuses on the reconciliation between Dunbar (Lear) and Florence (Cordelia). It was well done in its own right, but I couldn’t help wanting more out of this story.

Dunbar was also my first encounter with Edward St. Aubyn, who admittedly I hadn’t even heard of before now, but I have to say that for the most part I was impressed. His writing is lively and clever; I was awed by his intelligence on more than one occasion. I’ll readily admit that as someone with essentially zero knowledge of the stock market, a lot of the details of this book went right over my head – but St. Aubyn still kept me engaged, with stakes that consistently felt high even when some of the details escaped me.

Bottom line (insofar as I am able to give a bottom line when I’m as conflicted as I clearly am about this book): as a novel in its own right, Dunbar was strangely riveting and stimulating. As a King Lear retelling, it left a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, I did really enjoy reading this, and was fully prepared to give it 4 stars until its overly hasty conclusion, which unfortunately left me dissatisfied. 3.5 stars, rounded down.

Thank you Netgalley, Hogarth, and Edward St. Aubyn for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

10 thoughts on “book review: Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

  1. Great review! This is one of my Net Galley ARC’s that I’m hoping to read in the next few weeks. I’m not super familiar with King Lear though I read it in high school (I remember more about other plays by Shakespeare like Romeo And Juliet and The Tempest). I’m undecided on whether to re-read King Lear before reading Dunbar or to just let Dunbar stand on its own. If you haven’t read Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest for Hogarth Shakespeare (Hag-Seed) I thought it was excellent.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Honestly I think you’ll be fine without re-reading King Lear, since it’s not really a retelling that digs into the nuances of the story, it’s very much focused on Lear’s relationship with Cordelia, which I’m sure you remember the basics of. I have not read Hag-Seed, mainly because I’ve never read The Tempest! I feel like I should at least have some kind of knowledge of The Tempest before giving it a try.

      Liked by 1 person

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