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:
And of course, by the greatest of them all, a certain 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…)