Edward St Aubyn, Vintage Publishing, 2017, ISBN 9 781 7810 9039 8, 224pp
I am not sure why I picked this book up in Moruya Books the other day. It’s a pretty easy read, lightweight perhaps, and one that will leave you feeling that while you have read a book, you are not quite sure what you have gained. I was the same person having read this as I was before I read it. Perhaps that sounds unduly critical, perhaps even pretentious, but I think that reading a book needs to change the reader in some way. A book needs to have something to say. This book doesn’t really have anything to say but it’s an amusing and easy read. I knocked it off in a couple of hours. It does not demand any considerable intellectual effort to enjoy it. I do not mean that to sound patronising: if you want to read a novel purely for fun, then this is one novel that will satisfy.
Edward St Aubyn is an English novelist, the author of several novels one of which, Mother’s Milk was nominated in 2006 for the Booker Prize. It transpires that Dunbar is the latest instalment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. This is a collection of modern prose retellings of Shakespeare’s plays that includes Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, Hag-Seed, and Howard Jacobson’s interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, titled Shylock Is My Name. Forthcoming books include Jo Nesbo on Macbeth and Gillian Flynn on Hamlet. The binding of the book that I read tells the reader none of this, though it is clear that Dunbar is a take on King Lear. Shakespeare’s play tells of King Lear disposing of his kingdom to two of his three daughters and then becoming mad. And that is the story of Dunbar except that the central character is Henry Dunbar who is a media mogul sitting at the top of a mighty media empire.
The evil daughters, Abby and Megan, who would wrest complete control of the old man’s empire to their exclusive benefit, have a shared lover in Dr Bob. Dr Bob, who is indeed a doctor, has drugged the old man to cause him to lose control of his faculties. He is placed into a sanitarium, Meadowmeade, far from prying eyes, from which he escapes with an alcoholic ex-showbiz character called Peter Walker. Walker is not quite man enough to hang in with the old man; the challenges of a Cumbrian winter are too much for him. Walker is Shakespeare’s Fool. While he is wandering the Cumbrian wilds, Dunbar meets Tom, a former vicar. At least we suppose that Dunbar meets him, it may equally be that Tom is a figment of Dunbars confused imagination. Tom encourages Dunbar to see the human costs of his actions.
If Abby and Megan are Shakespeare’s Goneril and Regan, then his Cordelia is the likeable and altruistic Florence. Florence teams up with Dunbar’s ex-lawyer, Wilson, and together they succeed in rescuing Dunbar. Their challenge is to manipulate things so that a board meeting does not make a decision that would take the Dunbar Trust private. In the end … well, if you read the book then you can make your own mind up about what happens.
I read some enthusiastic reviews of this book. I cannot quite share their enthusiasm for a story which, after all, is not a new story. St Aubyn writes well, his prose nearly always (though not quite always) romps along and you do not have to work very hard to stay in touch with the narrative. I enjoyed the read but, with the benefit of hindsight, I would have chosen something else.