Book review: Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn

Great play though it unquestionably is, King Lear doesn't have much in the way of dramatic momentum to it, at least not until its closing scenes. In terms of plot, the majority of the action could be summarised as 'bad things happen' '“ the banishment of Cordelia, the humiliation of Kent, the blinding of Gloucester, and so on. Only towards the end of Act Four, with the various storm scenes over and the French army on British soil, does the play shift up a gear and lurch towards its tragic conclusion.

Detail from the cover of Dunbar
Detail from the cover of Dunbar

Perhaps Edward St Aubyn’s most impressive achievement in this retelling, then – the latest in an ongoing series of Shakespeare novelisations by contemporary authors, published as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project – is to find a way of structuring the story so that it rattles along at a breathless pace from start to finish. Somehow, even though we know what’s going to happen (well, more-or-less), Dunbar is still a page-turner.

That’s not to say that St Aubyn has simply jettisoned all of the play’s weighty intellectual baggage in an attempt to streamline the plot. Dunbar still asks searching questions about the experience of ageing, it still probes the grey area between madness and sanity and it still interrogates the infinite complexities of family relationships (the latter something of a specialist subject for the author, as demonstrated in his acclaimed Melrose novels, soon to be turned into a TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch).

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St Aubyn’s modern-day Lear is Henry Dunbar, the head of a global media corporation whose two eldest daughters, Abigail and Megan, have conspired with his personal physician Dr Bob to get him sectioned so they can take over his empire. His youngest daughter, Florence, has already been written out of his will for failing to show sufficient interest in the family business.

When we first meet this fallen media mogul all of this has already happened, and he is planning to escape from the care home in the Lake District where he has been confined, along with an alcoholic comedian called Peter Walker, his Fool. After surreptitiously spitting out their meds the pair make a beeline for the nearest pub, The King’s Head. Peter is content simply to drink himself into oblivion, but Dunbar has retribution on his mind. “You’d better watch out, my little bitches,” he rages at one point, “I’m on my way back. I’m not finished yet. I’ll have my revenge. I’ll – I don’t know what I’ll do yet – but I’ll...” He trails off – “the words wouldn’t come” – but lovers of the original play will already have substituted the line: “I will do such things / What they are yet I know not, but they shall be / The terrors of the earth.” Dunbar is full of these little echoes and half-echoes, and St Aubyn isn’t afraid to borrow lines from other Shakespeare plays either: early on, for example, he riffs on Hamlet as Dunbar calls Abigail and Megan “treacherous, lecherous bitches”. The frequent repetition of the word “nothing” in the original text is also referenced playfully – crossing snow-covered moorland on foot, Dunbar is desperate to make it to a village called Nutting: “Where was Nutting? Where was the signpost to Nutting?”

Even if you ignore all the intricate metatextual game-playing, this is still a magnificent book: a cautionary tale about what happens when people value power and money more than family and basic human decency, imaginatively re-tooled for our hyper-materialistic age.

*Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn, Hogarth Shakespeare, 211pp, £16.99