Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn is narrowly focused on a few days of conflict that test a rich, powerful, and ugly American family. Dunbar is an obscenely rich, elderly man who built an empire in the media. Of course, his success is based on ruthless tactics. Due to the Machiavellian manipulations of two of his three daughters, he languishes in an obscure security facility, drugged, miserable, and riddled with guilt over how he treated his one innocent daughter. He stops taking his medications, and along with two other residents, escapes on a harsh winter day, determined to regain his power, to make amends with his only loyal daughter, and to exact vengeance on all those who betrayed him.
The plot, which is not entirely unique, offers a condensed, archetypical, slice of life, a snapshot of a specific social strata stripped bare and revealed mostly via internal monologues that reveal backstory and motivations. This plotting strategy privileges thoughts over action and may leave certain readers hungering for more show and less tell. However, the complexities of these mental maneuverings will interest serious readers. Opposing camps, good and evil, race breathlessly through the winter, toward a head-on collision.
The characters are rather underdeveloped and a bit stereotypical. The two evil sisters possess no redeeming qualities and differ only in the depth of their perversion. The good daughter is loyal without question, saint like in her ability to forgive. Yet, it is interesting that she never calls home to touch base with her young children. Could any good character be so obsessed with her goal that she forgets her children? Dunbar is a typical, flawed, tragic character who sees the errors of his ways at the last moment. His only redeeming quality is love for one daughter. Trapped in an untenable situation, escape is Dunbar’s only option. His two sidekicks join him on his haphazard escape, but they cannot continue for long. One co-escapee who offers over the top comic relief quickly falls under the spell of his own demon, alcohol. The other is a confused woman who is no longer prepared to navigate the real world. Determined to achieve his goals of redemption and revenge, Dunbar refuses to accept the limitations of his physical condition and ends up on a lonely trek across the frigid, snow-covered countryside in search of a way to find his daughter. Unfortunately, readers may find it hard to care about any of these characters.
The main settings of the are New York and England. The only location that boasts a highly developed sense of place is the English countryside, which is held captive in the spell of an unforgiving winter storm. Dunbar, driven and fragile, stumbles through the snow, his overpowering drive defying the limitations of his aged body. The descriptions are vivid and visceral, and readers will find themselves rooting for Dunbar. Will he succeed?
Dunbar is indeed a tragedy and is tailored to feed the hunger of those who appreciate the classics and true literature, readers who luxuriate in intelligent wordplay and subtle nuances of meaning. Thus, readers who enjoy the sublime eloquence of the English language will feel their hearts race in ecstasy while reading Dunbar. But those who search for exciting action or an ending that satisfies a yearning for a vindication of justice and love may be profoundly disappointed. Even so, Mr. St. Aubyn should be lauded for carrying the banner of the sublime.