Book report #20 (2019)

Dunbar, by Edward St. Aubyn. Pub 2017

My third foray into the Hogarth Shakespeare. While not as good either of the previous reads, this was a good (if not great) read, perhaps helped by the fact that I was not familiar with the play that it is based on. St. Aubyn updates King Lear into modern times rather seamlessly, with the world of corporations and family trusts taking the place of kingdoms and inheritances. Dunbar (Lear) puts his ambitious, lusty, and untrustworthy eldest daughters in charge of his company and his fate, overriding the advice and counsel of friends and turning out his beloved youngest daughter over wounded pride and ego.

The resulting wars and schemes, the meddling of a doctor (I was surprised that there was no witch in the original, as the profligate use of drugs in the story was reminiscent of the potions and spells of hags), the appearance of fools, and the tragic ending are all Shakespearean in colour and proportion. The ending is a bit truncated, as the ultimate end for all is forecast but not confirmed, and so it felt a bit incomplete, but perhaps that is also Shakespearean (there are some instances where the ending is just told by a character).

Interestingly, St. Aubyn brings the three sister characters to the forefront, and makes clear that it is their machinations and actions that drive this story: these women are not the wives of earls and dukes, they ARE the Earls. However, the evil sisters are almost comical (if gross) in a cartoon villain way, and the attempts to humanize them by describing some inner turmoil actually make them more ridiculous – they are the ultimate privileged women (“…their arrogance was an unearned pride born of an unearned income.”) The youngest is similarly a caricature, but for good – family, philanthropy, nothing dissolute at all. So, while interesting, these characters are too unidimensional to be believable or sympathetic. (Perhaps this author is less adept at writing female characters.)

Dunbar is sympathetic: although it is clear he has been a bad father and a terrible boss (also some caricature here), his journey towards clarity and redemption is worthwhile, and the tragedy is less in the loss of life and more in the loss of possibility, in being able to recognize at last that which are the greatest blessings only to lose them. “Was this the triumph of self-knowledge: to suffer more lucidly?…There was something obscene about the indiscriminate clarity of his new mind.”

If read as a light mystery drama, it is a page turner. I think it needed more length and depth to fully capture the story and the tragedy of Lear, and to match the excellence of Macbeth and Hag-seed. Still, this Hogarth Shakespeare project has not disappointed, so I shall choose another in time.

13 – a book with a name in the title

19 – a book with a one word title

24 – a book by a new-to-me author

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