Reimagined Lear is a tour de force

In the words of English author Edward St Aubyn, Lear, the legendary ageing king of Britain, is reimagined as Henry Dunbar - a media mogul who has been robbed of his empire.

Formerly counted among the world's wealthiest, most powerful men, Dunbar now finds himself trapped in a sanatorium in rural England, retelling his downfall to a fellow resident: a once-famous alcoholic of a comedian named Peter Walker.

Lear is the latest to be given a modern makeover as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series: an international project seeing the Bard's plays recreated by some of today's best writers.

There is something about embarking on a novel knowing fully well how it will develop and end, but St Aubyn sets Dunbar on a fresh slate, pulling off what pans out to be a poetic, emotional read.

The novel begins with Henry and Peter planning their "great escape" from the care home, skipping most of the original play's first two acts while providing context for the events that follow.

Henry, now in his mid-80s, has stepped down from his position at the Dunbar Trust. Instead of simply handing over its day-to-day running while retaining his privileges, he is ousted by his elder daughters, Abigail and Megan, who enlisted the help of his personal doctor, Bob, to do so.

  • [FICTION] DUNBAR

  • By Edward St Aubyn

    Random House/ Paperback/213 pages/ $25.96 /Books Kinokuniya

    Rating: 3.5/5

Henry recounts in frustration the way they had "(perverted) his personal physician into their... all too personal gynaecologist, their pimp".

Meanwhile, his third daughter, Florence, learns of his supposed "psychotic break" and about how her sisters usurped the Trust.

She had earlier left for a simple life in Wyoming after falling out of her father's favour when she told him that she had no intention of taking over his business.

In a rage, he removed her from the company's board, excluded her children from the Trust and cut her from his will. But when she notices his disappearance, she grows worried and confronts her elder sisters. Failing to get any answers from them, she begins her own search for the elderly man.

Even as Dunbar echoes the play it takes inspiration from, St Aubyn is not afraid to modify the story to give his characters more room to grow.

Most of the original cast is cleverly retained - with banter between Henry and Peter calling to mind King Lear's exchanges with The Fool - although the Gloucester subplot is removed.

One of the original play's villains, Gloucester's illegitimate son, Edmund, is instead reimagined as the backstabbing Dr Bob, who turns out to have other ambitions of his own, even as he conspires with Abigail and Megan.

Much like King Lear, Dunbar is largely told from Henry's perspective, drawing readers into his fears, sense of disorientation and determination to get back on his feet.

These come together in a tour de force depiction of Henry's solo escape through a snowy wilderness, in which he struggles to retain his sanity while being "propelled by the relentless forward motion that had characterised his entire adult life".

Unfortunately, the same depth of storytelling hardly extends to the portrayal of some other characters, including Henry's elder daughters, who are mostly defined by viciousness and sexual depravity, with shrewd ambition that surfaces too briefly for two high-powered heiresses.

But the novel's strengths make up for this, with St Aubyn adding his brand of character growth to the tragedy defining the original play.

Where both the good and the evil meet their makers, St Aubyn's conclusion is more ambiguous - and all the better for it.

If you like this, read: Nutshell by Ian McEwan (Vintage Publishing, 2017, $18.65, Books Kinokuniya), which retells William Shakespeare's play Hamlet from the point of view of an unborn child.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2018, with the headline 'Reimagined Lear is a tour de force'. Print Edition | Subscribe