About the Book
“I am the queen of two crowns, banished fifteen years, the famed and gilded woman, bad-luck baleful girl, mother of three small animals, now gone. I am fifty-five years old. I am Lear’s wife. I am here.”
Word has come. Care-bent King Lear is dead, driven mad and betrayed. His three daughters too, broken in battle. But someone has survived: Lear’s queen. Exiled to a nunnery years ago, written out of history, her name forgotten. Now she can tell her story.
Though her grief and rage may threaten to crack the earth open, she knows she must seek answers. Why was she sent away in shame and disgrace? What has happened to Kent, her oldest friend and ally? And what will become of her now, in this place of women? To find peace she must reckon with her past and make a terrible choice – one upon which her destiny, and that of the entire abbey, rests.
Format: Paperback (368 pages) Publisher: Canongate
Publication date: 7th July 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction
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I bought a copy of this book when it was included in the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022 in February this year and it has been sitting on my bookshelf ever since. A readalong of the book organised by Canongate Books to coincide with its publication in paperback last month gave me the impetus I needed to finally read it.
I can immediately see why it has captured so much attention because the writing is extraordinarily lush, imaginative and poetic in nature. As a result, it requires some concentration; it is definitely not a book to rush through, rather to immerse yourself in. For me that meant reading it rather slowly, a couple of chapters at a time. In fact, the author has encouraged readers to ‘give into the slowness a little’. There is a plot but it builds slowly and the book is more about the reader gradually discovering the woman who was Lear’s queen and her own discovery of why she has been banished and confined within the abbey. ‘My crime, we call it, my vice; the unknown offence that led to my sentence, here.’
A question I asked myself early on was whether it was necessary to be familiar with Shakespeare’s King Lear to appreciate, or even understand, the book. Although I know the vague outlines of the play I can’t really say I recall much about the part played by Lear’s wife, despite the publishers describing her as ‘the most famous woman ever written out of literary history’. Actually, hers is more a ‘non-part’. As the book commences with news of events at the end of the play, I came to the conclusion the answer to my question was no, it doesn’t matter as just about all of the events Lear’s queen gradually reveals to us – both past and present – derive from the author’s imagination.
The book’s first person narrator is never named; all we know is that she was Lear’s wife and his queen. ‘Nobody has called my name to me, not for fifteen years; perhaps I have none.’ Her identity is completely tied up in her status as the wife of a king. ‘Even unnamed I am queen, still.’ For the first part of the book, as well as being confined within the walls of the abbey, she is also unseen by the nuns who reside there, veiled when in public, viewing the religious services through a screen.
Having learned of the death of Lear and her three daughters, the queen becomes obsessed with the desire to escaping from the abbey to tend their graves. Despite her preparations, obstacles are continually placed in her path: a harsh winter, an outbreak of sickness that sees the abbey quarantined from the outside world, gentle persuasion that turns into outright refusal.
The abbey becomes her kingdom, as it were, and we are constantly reminded of her ability to exercise power over others, whether that’s through revealing the story of her life in tantalising snippets to nuns starved of other forms of entertainment, gaining influence with the Abbess or later being given a role in the choice of the Abbess’s successor. When it comes to the latter there is just as much intrigue and jostling for favour as in any royal court and we witness the queen embracing the opportunity to wield her power and use the wiles she learned there, not least the often unseen power of women. ‘Men always think they are the architects of women’s actions, when we can slip under their demands and flee, away.’
As the book progresses we see the queen’s power and status within the abbey gradually wane, along with her grip on reality, echoing Lear’s descent into madness. Increasingly she lives in the past – ‘I am profuse with past selves’ – haunted by visions of the dead. ‘The ghosts whisper. One could listen to them sing all night… Things are loose, are unstitching.’
Although it’s not my favourite of the books longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize (that was The Fortune Men), there’s no doubt Learwife is a remarkable book. In the author’s own words, it contains ‘threads of love and power and hate, threads of motherhood and friendship and violence’.
In three words: Lyrical, imaginative, intense
Try something similar: Matrix by Lauren Groff
About the Author
JR Thorp is a writer, lyricist and librettist. She won the London Short Story Award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the BBC Opening Lines Prize, and has had work published in the Cambridge Literary Review, Manchester Review, Wave Composition and elsewhere. She wrote the libretto for the highly acclaimed modern opera Dear Marie Stopes and has had works commissioned by the Arts Council, the Wellcome Trust and St Paul’s Cathedral. She was picked as an Observer Best Debut Novelist of 2021.
Born in Australia, she now lives in Cork, Ireland. Learwife is her first novel. (Photo: Amazon author page)