Patrick Skene-Catling

Harsh, but entertaining

Edward St Aubyn’s new novel is harsh, but always entertaining

When millionaires become billionaires they become even greedier and more ruthless. At the highest level, Trumpian economics can be lethal. Edward St Aubyn, in his powerful new novel Dunbar, applies the oxyacetylene brilliance and cauterisation of his prose to bear on the tragic endgame of a family’s internecine struggle for control of a global fortune. St Aubyn is a connoisseur of depravity, yet also shows he cherishes the possibility of redemption.

Henry Dunbar is an 80-year-old Canadian mogul who founded and developed the world’s second-most influential media conglomerate. His older daughters, Abigail and Megan, want the wealth and power; his youngest daughter, Florence, wants only his love. The rivalry is freakishly intense, but one can endure the horrors and enjoy the author’s stylish craftsmanship.

At first the old man’s situation seems terminally dire. The diabolically acquisitive daughters have bribed his personal physician to commit him to a supposedly secure psychiatric hospital in the Lake District. Demented and further confused by drugs, Dunbar has been incapacitated so that he should be unable to resist the final quashing of his authority by a hostile takeover at an imminent board meeting in New York. Surprisingly, however, Dunbar’s hospital roommate, Peter Walker, an alcoholic comedian with a multifaceted personality disorder and voices to match, proves to be providentially sympathetic and resourceful.

‘I really did have an empire, you know,’ said Dunbar. ‘Have I ever told you the story of how it was stolen from me?’

‘Many times, old man, many times,’ said Peter dreamily, who is moved not to achieve justice in big business but to contrive their escape to the nearest bar. Dunbar, as instructed, spits out his medication and follows Walker out through the kitchen’s back door.

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