A reimagining of one of Shakespeare's most well-read tragedies, by the contemporary, critically acclaimed master of domestic drama
Henry Dunbar, the once all-powerful head of a global media corporation, is not having a good day. In his dotage he hands over care of the corporation to his two eldest daughters, Abby and Megan, but as relations sour he starts to doubt the wisdom of past decisions.
Now imprisoned in Meadowmeade, an upscale sanatorium in rural England, with only a demented alcoholic comedian as company, Dunbar starts planning his escape. As he flees into the hills, his family is hot on his heels. But who will find him first, his beloved youngest daughter, Florence, or the tigresses Abby and Megan, so keen to divest him of his estate?
Edward St Aubyn is renowned for his masterwork, the five Melrose novels, which dissect with savage and beautiful precision the agonies of family life. His take on King Lear, Shakespeare’s most devastating family story, is an excoriating novel for and of our times – an examination of power, money and the value of forgiveness.
About the Author
Edward St Aubyn was born in London. His superbly acclaimed Patrick Melrose novels are Never Mind, which won a Betty Trask Award, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, which won the Prix Femina étranger and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and At Last. He is also the author of the novels A Clue to the Exit, On the Edge, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize and Lost for Words, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize.
Read an Excerpt
“We’re off our meds,” whispered Dunbar.
“We’re off our meds/ we’re off our heads,” sang Peter, “we’re out of our beds/ and we’re off our meds! Yesterday,” he continued in a conspiratorial whisper, “we were drooling into the lapels of our terry cloth dressing gowns, but now we’re off our meds! We’ve spat them out; we’ve tranquilized the aspidistras! If those fresh lilies you get sent each day . . .”
“When I think where they come from,” growled Dunbar.
“Steady, old man.”
“They stole my empire and now they send me stinking lilies.”
“Oh, you had an empire, did you?” said Peter, in the voice of an eager hostess, “you must meet Gavin in Room 33, he’s here in disguise, but his real name,” Peter lowered his voice, “is Alexander the Great.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” grumbled Dunbar, “he’s been dead for years.”
“Well,” said Peter, now a Harley Street consultant, “if those troubled lilies were suffering from schizophrenic tendencies; tendencies, mind you, a little penchant for the schizoid, not the full-blown thing, their symptoms will have been mitigated with a minimum of fatal side effects.” He leant forward and whispered, “that’s where I put my dead meds: in the vase with the lilies!”
“I really did have an empire, you know,” said Dunbar. “Have I ever told you the story of how it was stolen from me?”
“Many times, old man, many times,” said Peter dreamily.
Dunbar heaved himself out of his armchair and after a couple of stumbling steps, straightened up, squinting at the strong light that slanted through the reinforced glass of his premium cell.
“I told Wilson that I would stay on as non-executive chairman,” Dunbar began, “keeping the plane, the entourage, the properties, and the appropriate privileges, but laying down the burden--” he reached over to the large vase of lilies and lowered it carefully to the floor, “laying down the burden of running the Trust from day to day. From now on, I told him, the world will be my perfect playground and, in due course, my private hospice.”
“Oh, that’s very good,” said Peter, “ ‘the world is my private hospice,’ that’s a new one.”
“ ‘But the Trust is everything,’ Wilson told me.” Dunbar grew more agitated as he moved into the story. “ ‘If you give that away,’ he said, ‘you’ll have nothing left. You can’t give something away and keep it at the same time.’ ”
“It’s an untenable position,” Peter cut in, “as R. D. Laing said to the Bishop.”
“Please let me tell my story,” said Dunbar. “I told Wilson that it was a tax measure, that we could get around the inheritance tax by giving the girls the company straight away. ‘Better pay the tax,’ said Wilson, ‘than disinherit yourself.’ ”
“Oh, I like this Wilson,” said Peter. “He sounds like a sound fellow, he sounds like a man with his meds screwed on, I mean his heads screwed on.”
“He only had one head,” said Dunbar impatiently, “he wasn’t a monster; it’s my daughters who are the monsters.”
“Only one head!” said Peter. “What a dull fellow! When I get anti-depressed I have more heads on my head than bees in a bonnet.”
“Very well, very well,” said Dunbar. He looked up at the ceiling and then boomed down in the voice of Wilson, “ ‘You can’t cling to the trappings of power, without the power itself. It’s just,’ ” he paused, trying to avoid the word, but eventually letting it fall on him from the plaster above, “ ‘decadent.’ ”
“Oh, decadence, decay, and death,” said Peter in his thespian tremolo, “descending, syllable by syllable, into a narrow grave. How lightly we have tripped down those stairs, like Fred Astaires, twirling a scythe instead of a cane!”
“God in heaven,” said Dunbar, his face flushing, “will you please stop interrupting me? People didn’t used to interrupt me; they listened to me meekly. If they spoke, it was to flatter me, or to make lucrative insinuations. But you, you . . .”
“Okay, guys,” said Peter, as if addressing an angry mob, “give the man some space. Let’s hear what he’s gotta say.”
“ ‘I can do what I bloody well like!’ ” cried Dunbar, “that’s what I told Wilson. ‘I am informing you of my decision, not asking your advice. Just make it happen!’ ”
Dunbar raised his eyes to the ceiling again.
“ ‘I’m not only your lawyer, Henry; I’m your oldest surviving friend. I’m saying these things to protect you.’ ”
“ ‘You presume too much on our friendship,’ I thundered. ‘I will not be lectured on the company that I alone created.’ ” Dunbar raised his fist to the ceiling and shook it. “At that point, I seized a Fabergé egg that lay in a nest of tissue paper on my desk--it was the third one that month: how monotonous the Russians were with their imperial pretensions; bunch of jumped‑up Jewish kleptocrats, pretending to be Romanov princes, I didn’t need their: ‘Bloody Russki trash!’ I shouted, flinging the egg into the fireplace behind my desk, scattering pearls and fragments of enamel across the hearth. ‘What do my daughters call it?’ I asked Wilson. ‘Bling! Bloody Russki bling!’
“Wilson remained impassive; these ‘infantile tantrums’ had become almost daily occurrences, causing some worry to my medical team. You see,” said Dunbar to Peter excitedly, “I can read his thoughts now. I’ve got . . .”
“I’m afraid to say that you’ve got psychotic insight,” said Peter, the Harley Street consultant.
“Oh, pish, stop pretending to be a doctor.”
“Who shall I pretend to be?” asked Peter.
“Just be yourself, for heaven’s sake.”
“Oh, I haven’t got that one down yet, Henry. Give me someone easier to impersonate. How about John Wayne?” Peter didn’t wait for an answer. “We’re goin’ to bust out of this joint, Henry,” he drawled, “and by sundown tomorrow we’ll be walkin’ into the Windermere Saloon and ordering a couple of drinks from the bartender, like a couple of real men in charge of their own destinies.”
“I must tell my story,” wailed Dunbar. “Oh, God, let me not go mad.”
“You see,” said Peter, ignoring Dunbar’s distress, “I am, or I was, or I used to be--who knows whether I’m history or not?--a famous comedian, but I suffer from depression, the comic affliction, or the tragic affliction of the comic, or the historic affliction of tragic comedians, or the fiction of the tragic affliction of historic comedians!”
“Please,” said Dunbar, “I’m getting confused.”
“Oh, I’m anti-depressed/ I’m anti-depressed,” sang Peter, leaping from his chair, locking arms with Dunbar and encouraging him to spin, “I’m so anti-depressed/that I’m manic !” He stopped suddenly and let go of Dunbar’s arm. “Sound of Screeching Tyres,” he cut in, in his voiceover voice, beginning to mime, “as he wrestles manfully with the steering wheel on the verge of a precipice.”
“I have seen your many faces,” said Dunbar vaguely, “on many screens.”
“Oh, I don’t claim to be unique,” said Peter, with a swagger of modesty, “I’m not the only one. In fact in 1953, when I was ejected into this vale of tears by my careless mother, there were already two hundred and thirty-one Peter Walkers in the London telephone directory alone; well, not alone so much as overcrowded.”
Dunbar stood frozen in the middle of the room.
“But I digress,” said Peter jovially. “Tell me about your ‘medical team,’ old man.”
“My medical team,” said Dunbar, grasping at the handrail of a familiar phrase in the pitch and roll of his thoughts. “Yes, yes; only the day before I announced my decision to Wilson, Dr. Bob, my personal physician, had taken Wilson aside to tell him that I had been experiencing some ‘little cerebral incidents.’ He told Wilson there was ‘nothing to get unduly worried about.’ ”
“Is there ever anything to get unduly worried about,” Peter couldn’t help asking, “when there are so many things to worry about duly?”
Dunbar waved him aside, like a man discouraging a persistent fly.
“But,” Dunbar resumed, “according to the glib doctor--that gilded serpent, that dodecahedron--who should have been an expert, since his only patient was me, or I, or at any rate, myself, Henry Dunbar,” he said, pounding his chest, “Henry Dunbar.”
“Not Henry Dunbar, the Canadian media mogul!” asked Peter, seemingly all agog. “One of the world’s richest, and arguably the world’s most powerful man?”
“Yes, yes, that’s me, or I, or at least my name--my grammar slips a little around certain ideas, spins around, around certain whirlpools. Anyway, according to that hateful traitor, my physician, it would be better to keep my tantrums ‘to a minimum’; for my entourage not to engage with them, or appear to take them too seriously.”
“Tantrums will be at a maximum tomorrow afternoon,” Peter announced, “as Hurricane Henry moves through the Lake District. Viewers are advised to crawl into a basement and chain themselves to a rock.”
Dunbar flailed his arms around, warding off more and more flies.
“I . . . I. Where was I? Oh, yes, after my little show of rage, Wilson remained impassive, thinking it was the right thing to do. Meanwhile, I noticed the egg; its surface turned out to be chipped and spoilt, but the interior was made of gold and the whole thing had failed to shatter in the way that my mood demanded. I walked over to it and brought my pitiless hell down on the maddening toy, but it was more resistant than I had imagined and the egg slid from under my shoe. I just caught the mantelpiece in time to save myself from an ignominious fall. I saw loyal Wilson rise from his chair and subside again. The moment of shock jolted me out of my fury and into a more fragile frame of mind.
“ ‘I’m getting old, Charlie,’ I said to Wilson, picking up the toy egg and pushing down the sense of dread I’d carried ever since that stupid, stupid accident in Davos: the constant fear of falling over again, of no longer being able to trust my treacherous body. ‘I don’t want that level of responsibility anymore,’ I said. ‘The girls will look after me, there’s nothing they love more than fussing over their old father.’ ”
“In short,” said Peter, in a thick Viennese accent, “ ‘he turned his daughters into his mother!’ As Freud said to the Bishop, on the corner of Heimatstrasse and Wanderlust.”
“I opened the window nearest to me,” Dunbar persisted, “and posted the egg into the air. ‘That’ll make someone’s day,’ I said.
“ ‘As long as it doesn’t crack their skull,’ said Wilson. ‘Heads are more brittle than gold.’ ”
“Oh, what a wise Wilson it is,” said Peter.
“ ‘I think we would have heard the cry of alarm by now,’ I assured him, sitting back down behind my desk. ‘People are better at hiding their glee than their agony. Here,’ I said, offering Wilson a gift, ‘why don’t you have one of these? I’ve got enough of this Russki bling to make a Fabergé omelette.’ I opened my drawer and tossed a glittering bauble through the air. Wilson, who had been playing catch with me and my family for several decades, since that first Sunday lunch when he found us all playing baseball in the garden like a normal family--like a family playing at being a normal family--caught it neatly, glanced down at the lattice of tiny diamonds that criss-crossed its crimson surface, and rolled it without comment onto the table beside his armchair, where it came to rest unsteadily next to his empty Meissen coffee cup.”
“I’m loving the detail, darling,” said Peter, the ecstatic theater director, “loving it.”
“ ‘You should at least hold back a block of shares,’ said Wilson, ‘and I’m telling you right now that you won’t be allowed to keep Global One. No private citizen has his own 747.’
“ ‘Allowed?’ I thundered, ‘allowed ? Who is it will deny Dunbar his wishes? Who is it will deny Dunbar his whims?’ ”
“Why Dunbar, of course,” said Peter. “Only he has the power, or had the power, or used to have the power.”
“I’ll make it a condition of the gift! By God, I’ll have my way!”
A knock on the door made Dunbar fall abruptly silent. A hunted look came over his face.
“Quickly,” said Peter, leaping up and hurrying to his side. “Remember, old man: pretend to take your meds, but don’t swallow them,” he whispered. “Tomorrow is the great escape, the great jailbreak.”
“Yes, yes,” whispered Dunbar, “the great escape. Enter!” he called out grandly.
Peter, who had started quietly humming the theme music of Mission Impossible, gave Dunbar a wink.
Dunbar tried to return the wink, but found he could not control his eyelids separately and blinked a few times instead.
Two nurses entered the room, pushing a trolley loaded with medicine bottles and plastic cups.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said Nurse Roberts, the older of the two. “How are we today?”
“Has it ever occurred to you, Nurse Roberts,” asked Peter, “that we might have more than one emotion within us, let alone between us?”
“Up to your old tricks again, Mr. Walker,” said Nurse Roberts. “Have we been to our meeting today?”
“We have been to our meeting, and I am happy to report that we experienced a warm sense of fellowship with our fellow fellows.”
Nurse Muldoon couldn’t help giggling.
“Don’t encourage him,” said Nurse Roberts with a disapproving sigh. “We’re not going to try to run away to the pub again, are we?”
“What do you take me for?” asked Peter.
“A raging alcoholic,” said Nurse Roberts sarcastically.
“What on earth could persuade a person to leave this notorious beauty spot,” said Peter returning to his thespian tremolo, “this haven of natural tranquilizers, this valley through which the milk of human kindness flows like a silken river, healing the troubled minds of its already well heeled clientele?”
“Hmmm,” said Nurse Roberts, “we’ve got our eye on you.”
“Here at Schloss Meadowmeade,” said Peter, metamorphosed into a German Kommandant, “we have ninety-nine point nine percent security! The only reason it is not one hundred percent is because you fellows locked one of your own officers on the window ledge overnight and he lost a finger to frostbite!”
“That’s enough of your nonsense,” said Nurse Roberts. “What’s this vase doing on the floor? Nurse Muldoon, would you mind? And then, will you please accompany Mr. Walker back to his room. Mr. Dunbar needs his afternoon rest. It’s time to say good-bye and let him get a little peace and quiet.”
“See ya round, partner,” said John Wayne, giving Dunbar a wink.
Dunbar blinked back several times to show that he understood.
After the others had left, Nurse Roberts led the way into the bedroom with her trolley.
“I don’t think Mr. Walker is a good influence on you, personally,” she said. “He just gets you agitated.”
“Yes,” said Dunbar humbly, “you’re quite right, Nurse. He’s a bit all over the place. I find him quite frightening sometimes.”
Excerpted from "Dunbar"
Copyright © 2017 Edward St. Aubyn.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I would like to tell you why I wanted to read this novel. One out of three probably isn’t the best batting average, but the “one” was so strong that it overcame the other two. First, I have never read King Lear, so I was at a disadvantage on the plot line. I also had not heard of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, so that’s strike two. But the home run came when I saw that Edward St. Aubyn had written this recreation of Shakespeare’s tragic family tale. Anyone who has read St. Aubyn knows that he is the master of the dysfunctional family. No subject escapes his acerbic wit. I can think of no other writer who evinces more chuckles from me. He displays the same talents in Dunbar that I so loved in the Patrick Melrose series: comedy, tragedy, family interaction, social injustice. Dunbar is thoroughly modern. The setting is a corporate world, where Henry Dunbar is a media mogul who had turned his empire over to two of his three daughters. The two evil sisters’ lust for power drive them to have Dunbar declared unstable, and place him in a sanatorium. The third sister, who has no interest in the machinations of business, has been disinherited and lives on a ranch in Wyoming, caring more for the environment than for wealth and power. Dunbar escapes from the sanitorium with an alcoholic comedian, and the third sister begins a quest to find her father before the Evil ones recapture him. A motley assortment of subordinate characters display so many characteristics of today’s society, both good and bad. St. Aubyn’s retelling of this tragedy is compelling because he introduces a comedic aspect. The purist may find fault with this interpretation, but I was not encumbered by previous conceptions of what Shakespeare meant. I think St. Aubyn’s writing is beautiful, and I love the way he weaves humor into his work. I enjoyed the book, and recommend it highly. I received an ARC from Netgalley and Crown Publishing in exchange for an honest review.
Media mogul Henry Dunbar has taught his two older daughters too well. In a lapse of judgment, he hands over his power to them, and they respond by placing him in an isolated sanatorium, as a business move, of course, and cutting loose his right hand man, Charlie Wilson. His youngest daughter by his second wife, his obviously favorite child, who rejected the family business, and he rejected in turn, searches for him out of love. In this modern day King Lear, the patriarch escapes with the assistance of an unreliable colleague, ending up in the rural wilderness during a mighty storm. Rage at the disloyalty of the turncoat daughters and the desire for forgiveness from his beloved youngest fuels his survival instincts. Henry not so much evolves as he makes a 180-degree turn to become a man understanding of his youngest daughter’s inclination toward family and away from money. Good and evil are clearly delineated by the two older, traitorous daughters and the youngest, all-loving daughter, easily explained by their different mothers. In his dangerous escapade, their father essentially switches sides, focusing immediately on reconciliation with the good daughter. Wilson aides in her search, never giving up on his employer and friend. In Shakespearean fashion, the inevitable happens, with good winning and losing. Dear Reader need not be a Shakespeare fan to appreciate this novel. In fact, it may be more dramatic without the comparison. The treacherous daughters come off as one dimensional, making them great villains, though not complex characters. The lovable daughter seems more human, with her adulterous thoughts of Wilson’s son, a previous lover. Dunbar himself presents as a grand tragic figure of patriarchy self-sabotage, with redemption within his grasp. I’m thankful to receive an advanced copy of this book through Blogging for Books.
Dunbar is this sixth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that challenges contemporary authors to reimagine and recontextualize Shakespeare. Edward St. Aubyn brings King Lear to life as a media mogul named Dunbar, somewhat of a Canadian Murdoch. Dunbar opens with our mogul locked up in a sanitarium spitting out his meds along with his new friend, Peter, a fellow inmate and obvious dipsomaniac with whom he escapes from Meadowmeade. He is soon pursued by his faithless daughters who locked him up with the connivance of their lover, Dr. Bob. Dr. Bob’s pharmacopeia is in frequent use, but his masterstroke was inducing a psychic break that led to Dunbar’s commitment. Dunbar’s youngest daughter, Florence is also searching for him, she loves him and hopes to rescue him. There is a manic and often sardonic humor in Dunbar that helps the story escape the bleak bitterness of the sisters and Dunbar, all malevolent people. That humor is why I thought St. Aubyn was an inspired choice. After all, King Lear has nothing on the Patrick Melrose family and those stories sparkle. So why am I disappointed? I guess I wish St. Aubyn had taken more liberties. It is so obviously Lear. I loved how well Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed took us into The Tempest in a way that did not replicate the play. Dunbar is too literal, too close to Lear. I wanted a story inspired by, not just moved into a different milieu. Then there are the conspirators. So one-dimensional. Worse, like B-movie villains, they openly discuss their machinations in great detail. It’s cartoonish or like something from a seventeenth-century play. The only saving grace is that St. Aubyn can write with manic humor. The scenes with Peter who is the wise fool and friend to the powerless Dunbar are brilliant. The rest is not. I received an advance e-galley of Dunbar from the publisher through NetGalley.