34451697.jpg Title: Dunbar

Writer: Edward St. Aubyn

 Publishing House: Penguin Random House

  Date of Publication:October 24th 2017

  Rating: 2.5 stars

Time for a lesson in the History of Theatre and a few of the greatest actors of all time. Younger members of our beautiful community pay attention. You are about to learn what true acting means…The larger-than- life figure of the tragic King Lear has been portrayed by:


scofieldlear1.jpgPaul Scofield  αρχείο λήψης.jpg Christopher Plummer KING-LEAR_Ian-McKellen.jpg Ian McKellen αρχείο λήψης (1).jpg Ian Holm07king-span-jumbo.jpg Derek Jacobi 3027cf50bd9610c236be7e1f88a141be.jpg James Earl Jones

And of course, by the greatest of them all, a certain αρχείο λήψης (2).jpg Laurence Olivier

‘’I must tell my story…Oh God, let me not go mad! ‘’

If you still haven’t understood the levels of my Shakespeare obsession, you haven’t paid attention:)

I am a sworn Shakespeare purist and there is nothing that can alter my mind. My opinion on the Hogarth Shakespeare series is somehow divided. I adored ‘’Vinegar Girl’’ and I look forward to Nesbo’s ‘’Macbeth’’, while ‘’Hag-Seed’’ will find a place in my wintry reads. ‘’King Lear’’ is one of those plays that have haunted me ever since I read it, some 15-odd years ago. I haven’t had the chance to attend a live performance yet, but Shakespeare’s words and the figure of this highly troubling and troubled, tormented man are so powerful that spring alive from the page. Now, with this in mind, I can tell you that ‘’Dunbar’’ seemed to me an uneven retelling. Naturally, no writer is Shakespeare and it is more than apparent in most of the retellings. With this novel, I venture to say that the readers who have not yet read ‘’King Lear’’ are likely to enjoy it and appreciate it even more. I couldn’t…

Henry Dunbar is a mass media mogul. A widower with three daughters, Abigail, Megan and Florence (… as in Goneril, Regan and Cordelia…) Having practically disinherited Florence for being unwilling to dedicate herself to the company, Abby and Megan are given her own share of the fortune. And what do they do? They ‘’imprison’’ him in an asylum in Manchester. What happens next would be easy to guess if you read ‘’King Lear’’.

The characters were the mightiest disappointment, in my opinion. Besides Dunbar and Florence, who are strong equivalents of their original versions, and Chris who somehow stands for the King of France, the rest are not good enough to support such an effort. Wilson, is a hybrid between Gloucester and Kent, but lacks the tragic nature of the Duke and the savviness of Kent and if Dr. Bob is Edmund, then I am Ophelia…He is not powerful enough to make for a convincing antagonist. Now, in my opinion, the characters of Abigail and Megan significantly lowered the quality of the entire novel. They had no strength of presence like Goneril and Regan, and they had no motive. They existed just to be evil and the writer tried too hard to make them appear as such. They had no personality, no evil maturity and menace like the villains in Shakespeare. They just swear, talk to each other while hallucinating and have sex with any male that crosses their path. There was too much emphasis on sex with these women, destroying any hint of a sinister atmosphere and all it accomplished was for them to be reduced to sex-crazed psychopaths, characters that escaped from those rubbish-quality paperbacks with the disgusting front covers…. I don’t claim to know the writer’s intentions, but it was cheap and disrespectful. The way I see it, he lacked the deep insight into the human nature.

‘’Who can tell me who I am? Who I really am?’’

With Dunbar, the futility and remorse of Lear, is clearly and brilliantly depicted. The whole essence of his ordeal was faithful and respectful of its source. The agony to right the wrongs and to escape a world that demands you to be mad is tense and vivid. The scenes of Dunbar’s time in hiding and his thoughts of remorse echo Lear’s tribulations. Florence’s fears for her father and her struggle to protect him from her sisters are well-depicted without being melodramatic. However, the dialogue was rather average and the fact that there were scattered quotes from ‘’King Lear’’ throughout didn’t help. It rather alienated me, to be honest. The overall writing isn’t powerful enough to explore the complexity of the themes of identity and despair of ‘’King Lear’’ and at times, the story became too action-driven and too family drama both of which aren’t to my liking.

‘’No mercy. In this world or the next.’’

The problem is that Dunbar’s words fall empty. The end, although it was to be expected, was no less bitter and shocking. However, it wasn’t convincing enough. I found it to be abrupt and lacking in justice and resolution, the catharsis (however limited) that is communicated in the final Act of the masterpiece. Dunbar may call for no mercy, but there’s noone to hear his words. Perhaps, you will claim that I should judge the book as a work on its own. You will be probably right and I’d still give it the rating I did. The thing is that it’s not a work on its own. It’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s great tragedy and bound to be compared. It cannot stand the comparison, I’m afraid. The finest writers in the world could try to rewrite one of his plays and they would still fall short.

So, as it stands for me, the writer dropped the ball in certain important moments with momentary satisfying highlights. But merely ‘’satisfying’’ doesn’t do, in my opinion. There was no shuttering moments, no dagger nailed into the heart when witnessing the characters’ ordeal, because the writer doesn’t allow us to experience in fully and convincingly. Therefore, I believe that even the 3 stars may be too generous…

Many thanks to Penguin Random House and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange of an honest review.

(And in other news, I have really struggled to remain civil with those who harass poor Lear…It won’t happen again…)




  1. rachel says:

    Great review! I agree with you on just about everything – I think if I hadn’t already been familiar with Lear, I would have enjoyed Dunbar a lot more. As a novel in its own right it was perfectly fine, but as a Lear retelling, too much was lacking, and the plot points St. Aubyn decided to hone in on were just so straightforward. I think retellings are a good opportunity to expand on what’s in the original text or explore it from a different angle, but he didn’t really do either of those things, so I put it down feeling like ‘what’s the point?’


    1. Thank you, Rachel. I read your beautiful review and I agree with you. I feel that the readers who haven’t read Shakespeare’s play will be able to appreciate the effort more than I have. Especially the characterization of the two ”evil” sisters was so tacky and distasteful that ruined the whole novel, in my opinion. I admit I am not the biggest advocate of retellings but there have been times when certain efforts turned out really well. This one was pretty much meaningless and ‘what’s the point’ is the perfect way to put it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. rachel says:

        Thanks very much! I think I may have enjoyed it overall a bit more but I think we’re mostly on the same page. I agree 100% about Abby and Megan, they were complete caricatures of Goneril and Regan. The fact that St. Aubyn decided to focus on the sisters but didn’t even put any effort into their characterization annoyed me to no end. Florence was a bit of a caricature as well, but at least she had a bit more of a personality.

        I’m a big fan of Greek mythology and there are a lot of opportunities for really cool retellings with that, so I’ve always been a retelling advocate, but I’m starting to wonder if Shakespeare is best left alone….

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree, Rachel. I think that Greek myths and tragedies provide a much more flexible material for adaptations and can be more ”comfortably” communicated outside the historical and social context. For example, Toibin’s ”House of Names” is one of the finest books I’ve ever read. However, Shakespeare’s words are so powerful and linked deeply within the era that produced them that is very difficult to be handled- if I may use this word- by any writer.

        I am rather optimistic about ”Hag-Seed” by Atwood, but I venture to say that Nesbo’s ”Macbeth” will have me wonderding..And I don’t plan on ever touching Flynn’s Hamlet retelling.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. rachel says:

        It totally slipped my mind that you’re Greek as I was writing that – of course you know all about the world of Greek mythological retellings! There’s something so universal about the tragedies, too, I agree completely that a lot can be achieved when you remove them from their original context. Have you been able to see Colin’s new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer yet? I’m not sure what the international release date on that was. It’s based on Iphigenia at Aulis but set in modern day America and I thought it worked perfectly in that setting. I think with Shakespeare it’s definitely a bit trickier – like you said, the words themselves are so powerful, but it’s also important to choose the right setting for a retelling. Everything in Dunbar just felt so arbitrary. Like, what exactly is it about Lear that demands to be retold with a Canadian media empire??

        I’ll be curious to see how you get on with Hag-Seed, I’ve heard so many mixed things! I’m cautiously intrigued by Nesbo’s Macbeth since I love the original story so much, but I could see that going either way…. and I imagine morbid curiosity will cause me to pick up Flynn’s Hamlet eventually, haha!


      4. Thank you, Rachel! Yes, I’ve recently seen The Killing of A Sacred Deer and it is one of the most interesting, weirdly beautiful, twisted and haunting films you’ll ever watch. Just my kind of things. The parallels between the new version and ”Iphigenia at Aulis” can be easily felt and the story has been handled extremely well. Not to mention that it is visually a masterpiece.

        Atwood has never failed me and I think that ”The Tempest”, which is the source for the novel, is one of those plays that may fare better in an adaptation. I agree about ”Macbeth”. I will definitely read it but I sadly feel preoccupied. Like you, my love for the original is infinite, so I can’t see him turned into a mob-boss. I shudder just by thinking that Flynn ”touched” Hamlet….

        Liked by 1 person

      5. rachel says:

        Ah yay I’m glad we can talk about Sacred Deer – I found it so deeply disturbing so naturally I LOVED IT. I had really high expectations since I loved The Lobster so much and it did not disappoint. It was such a physically draining film to watch since it was so relentlessly dark, but the tension that he was able to achieve was just incredible, and the conclusion was harrowing even though we knew it was coming with the parallels to Iphigenia. And YES I am OBSESSED with the cinematography, it was such a visually stunning film. I hope I can see it again at the cinema before it leaves.

        I have a kind of complicated relationship with Atwood, I don’t love her as much as other people tend to! Though I do absolutely love The Blind Assassin, so there is hope…


      6. It was one of the most striking films I’ve ever watched, Rachel. We are very proud of Lanthimos in Greece. His first film titled ”Kinodontas” (Greek for ”Dogtooth”) was also disturbing and haunting. It only lacked the presence of A-list actos like Colin and Kidman that would take it all the way to the Oscars. And I think that both leading actors did a marvellous job. In fact, although not a big fan of Kidman’s acting style, I think she fits with Lanthimos’ vision really well. ”The Killing of the Sacred Deer” is one of those films that stay with us.

        I haven’t read ”The Blind Assassin” yet, but I plan on doing so during the holidays, along with ”Alias Grace” and ”The Heart Goes Last”. I foresee an Atwood-style Christmas for me:)

        Liked by 1 person

      7. rachel says:

        I’ve tried watching Dogtooth on like three separate occasions and something always comes up partway through the film where I’m not able to finish – I’m cursed!! I really need to sit down and finish it one of these days though, I’ve found the beginning to be very interesting! I also watched Alps the other day and didn’t love it quite as much as The Lobster or Sacred Deer, but I think Lanthimos is one of the most innovative directors currently working. It’s no wonder you’re proud of him in Greece! I can’t wait to see where his career goes now that he’s made a name for himself and has been working with A-list actors.

        Also I completely agree about Kidman, I’m usually irritated by her but I thought she was really excellent in Sacred Deer – I think her respect for Lanthimos is apparent in the way that she was slightly outside her comfort zone but she managed to give such a compelling performance. And Colin obviously was superb, I really hope he gets some recognition this award season!


      8. I haven’t seen Alps yet, but the consensus seems to be a bit negative. I think Lanthimos is a very innovative director and unafraid to push the boundaries and that’s what I admire most in him. Dogtooth, in particular, is extremely disturbing…And I couldn’t agree more about Colin, it’s time for the critics and the Academy and I don’t know who else hands over the awards to start recognizing that he is much more than a pretty face.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. rachel says:

        I liked Alps better in concept than execution – I thought it was overly difficult to follow (even though this was kind of the point). I’d be willing to watch it again to try to make some more sense of it, but definitely not my favorite. Angeliki Papoulia was insanely good though. You’ve inspired me to try to get around to Dogtooth at some point soon. And fingers crossed that Colin finally gets some recognition! I’m still sad about him losing the Golden Globe for The Lobster to Ryan Gosling.

        Liked by 1 person

      10. I couldn’t agree more! Certainly, Gosling is a decent enough actor but Colin’s character in the Lobster was ten times more unique, moving and memorable than Gosling’s…

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