Review: Dunbar, Edward St Albyn; Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends

Two notable new books consider tests of human resilience and compassion in very different circumstances

The Hogarth Shakespeare project – a series of re-workings of the bard’s plays by eminent writers including Anne Tyler, Howard Jacobson and Margaret Atwood – sounded dangerously gimmicky when it was announced. Re-imaginings have become old hat in the age of frenzied recycling, and western literature can hardly be accused of leaving Shakespeare’s works unexplored. Even the Bible looks relatively unchallenged in comparison.

However, perhaps due to its inspired roll call of storytellers, the imprint has given us some intriguing new evaluations of core contemporary issues such as race, gender, and imprisonment, as well as compelling investigations of a host of psychological ills. It has proved, albeit for the millionth time, that Shakespeare’s genius is his perpetual unfathomability.

Dunbar is the latest addition, and sees British writer Edward St Aubyn get stuck in to King Lear. It’s an unsurprising choice for the author of the acclaimed Patrick Melrose series. The Melrose novels, depicting the wasteful and cruel antics of a profoundly dysfunctional aristocratic family, are based on St Aubyn’s own life, in which he was raped repeatedly as a child by his tyrannical father, and became an Oxford-attending heroin addict before heading into psychotherapy at 25. So he knows a thing or two about screwed-up fathers on the wrong end of familial power, corruption and lies.

Sensitive and sorrowful, Dunbar is also fast paced, sassy, and very funny

St Aubyn has said one re-read of Lear sent him into a panic, hurrying away ‘like someone leaving a burning building’. He didn’t turn back to the text again, but in fact, though his Lear is updated to a Murdoch-style media mogul incarcerated in a Lake District care home, his version sticks pretty rigidly to the original. The main characters are all there in some form, and the main theme of an old man whose loss of power and its accompanying illusions result in mental and physical breakdown, is thoroughly and conscientiously plumbed.

It is testimony to the richness and visionary wisdom of King Lear that, despite 400 years of forensic investigation, it continues to inspire thought-provoking and poignant new work. While it doesn’t succeed on every level (though avoiding reductive shortcuts in a 200-page novel based on Lear may be beyond any writer unequal to Shakespeare himself), I found Dunbar hugely satisfying. Sensitive and sorrowful, it is also fast paced, sassy, and very funny (his fool, depressive alcoholic comedian Peter, fires out random brain floss like Ross Noble on Red Bull). Another fruitful pursuit from the worthwhile Hogarth enterprise.

There are many books addressing the plight of refugees fighting their way towards the imagined civilisations of Europe or America. Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends – lucid, plain-speaking, and authoritative – is one of the most powerful.

Without hyperbole or mawkish sentiment, Luiselli  makes a moral case it’s hard to argue with

In 2014 Luiselli, a Mexican woman with her own experience of struggling with the US immigration system, began working as a New York court interpreter for unaccompanied child refugees fleeing Mexico and Central America. Here, she details the nightmarish terrors these children have come from, the harrowing journey they have endured, and the ignorant, hostile environment they find awaiting them in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. The chasm between their romanticised hopes for a welcome, and the cold suspicion with which they are greeted, makes for torturous reading. Without hyperbole or mawkish sentiment, Luiselli makes a moral case it’s hard to imagine anyone with a care for the humanity of the West to argue with.