King Lear the dark comedy: Dunbar by Edward St Aubyn
Dunbar is a modern retelling of King Lear in which Henry Dunbar, a Canadian media mogul, finds himself battling two of his daughters after they get him confined to a care home in the Lake District whilst they take over his company. At the same time, his youngest daughter Florence, who he recently removed from the company due to her lack of interest in his business, is on a mission with some of his other former allies to find and save her father before her scheming half-sisters succeed in their plan.
The novel is St Aubyn’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which aims to retell Shakespeare’s stories in novels by bestselling modern writers. The series has been a varied one, and Dunbar is another instalment with its hits and misses. King Lear is a fairly obvious choice for a business-related retelling and this world of Murdoch-esque media empires strikes a modern chord whilst giving Dunbar a questionable morality even in the face of the more overt amorality of his eldest daughters.
One of the main issues with the novel is the fact that the plot line—old man wrongfully imprisoned in care home and escapes, whilst daughters battle for power and deal with their own personal issues—is more darkly comic than tragic. This retelling takes the ridiculousness of Lear with its infamous Fool and dashing about in the dark and doesn’t quite make it feel more than the narrative of a dark comedy drama (there is also a similarity to one of the plot lines in Cloud Atlas). Even keeping somewhat to the ending of King Lear, the novel’s ending does not feel tragic, particularly as Florence, the Cordelia figure, isn’t really given enough space to be anyone (though the same could be thought about Cordelia).
This isn’t to say that Dunbar can’t be an enjoyable read. The transformation of Lear’s Fool into Peter Walker, alcoholic TV comedian who Dunbar befriends in the care home, is a good choice, and the way his storyline gets bolstered by some of Gloucester’s from the original text adds nastiness to Abigail and Megan, St Aubyn’s Goneril and Regan. Indeed the earlier parts, with Dunbar and Peter’s strangely witty conversations and references to Freud are a clever opening and more enjoyable than Lear’s discussions with the Fool in the play.
Dunbar turns King Lear into a dark caper for the most part, and whilst this might make it more enjoyable for people who don’t enjoy the tragedy of Lear, it is a retelling that has definitely chosen some elements of the original over others in a specific way. In this context, the exaggerated villainy of the modern counterparts to Goneril and Regan makes them almost comic bad guys, sometimes too busy having sex to keep an eye on their plotting, and Dunbar is not so much caught out in a storm than rambling around the Lake District. There’s no reason why King Lear shouldn’t be turned into this kind of story, of course, and Dunbar is a decent novel, but it doesn’t really say or do anything interesting with Lear beyond highlighting elements of ridicule.
[See my reviews of other books in the Hogarth Shakespeare series here.]