#BookReview Learwife by JR Thorp

LearwifeAbout 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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My Review

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


JR ThorpAbout 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)

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#BookReview News of the Dead by James Robertson

News of the DeadAbout the Book

‘To tell the story of a country or a continent is surely a great and complex undertaking; but the story of a quiet, unnoticed place where there are few people, fewer memories and almost no reliable records – a place such as Glen Conach – may actually be harder to piece together. The hazier everything becomes, the more whatever facts there are become entangled with myth and legend. . .’

Deep in the mountains of north-east Scotland lies Glen Conach, a place of secrets and memories, fable and history. In particular, it holds the stories of three different eras, separated by centuries yet linked by location, by an ancient manuscript and by echoes that travel across time.

In ancient Pictland, the Christian hermit Conach contemplates God and nature, performs miracles and prepares himself for sacrifice. Long after his death, legends about him are set down by an unknown hand in the Book of Conach.

Generations later, in the early nineteenth century, self-promoting antiquarian Charles Kirkliston Gibb is drawn to the Glen, and into the big house at the heart of its fragile community.

In the present day, young Lachie whispers to Maja of a ghost he thinks he has seen. Reflecting on her long life, Maja believes him, for she is haunted by ghosts of her own.

Format: Hardback (384 pages)       Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Publication date: 5th August 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

News of the Dead is this year’s winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. You can watch its author, James Robertson, talking about the book on the Walter Scott Prize’s YouTube channel, where you’ll also find interviews with all the other shortlisted authors.

Because News of the Dead moves frequently between three different storylines, there is a danger of it feeling like three books squeezed into one.  However, the author manages to create sufficient connections between the three to make it a cohesive whole, although the storyline set in the present day feels the least connected. Having said that, Maja’s story, when it is finally revealed near the end of the book, I found the most compelling and I think in expanded form would have made a fine novel in itself.

For me the character who leapt off the page was Charles Kirkliston Gibb. He’s an unapologetic rogue and chancer, admitting ‘From the age of ten my life has been an unbroken campaign of not being found out’, and happy to describe himself as ‘a kind of intellectual vagabond’. His journal provides an insight into his work of transcribing and translating the Book of Conach, his desire to string this out for as long as possible in order to keep a comfortable roof over his head and details of life in the ‘Big House’, the home of Lord and Lady Glen Conach, and their daughter, Jessie. For Charles, his journal also acts as documentary proof of his existence, even if not everything in it is necessarily true.

Storytelling is a pervading theme of the book, whether that’s individuals’ own personal histories – the stories they tell about themselves – or how they are remembered by others. The book also explores the notion of what is true and what is invention, and how easy (or difficult) it is to tell the difference. Since the Book of Conach was later destroyed in a fire along with Charles Gibb’s transcription, only his translation (which became a joint endeavour with Jessie) remains. But who is to say that translation was faithful? After all, as Jessie asks at one point, ‘Do you think history must always be duller than fiction?’

News of the Dead is certainly far from dull and the author manages to pull off several different styles, including passages in Scots dialect for the stories told by the irrepressible and accommodating Geordie Kemp, who never likes to disappoint a listener.

In the interview mentioned above, the author explains how he sought to make Glen Conach, although an invented location, feel as real as possible. Although from the outside it might appear isolated and remote, its inhabitants have no reason to leave. This is neatly mirrored by the contemporary story being set during the Covid pandemic so Glen Conach’s residents are unable to leave even if they wanted to. Harking back to earlier days, they must rely on the support of their little community for their needs.

News of the Dead is my first experience of the writing of James Robertson but it has made me keen to search out his other books. It’s an example of why I look forward to the announcement of the Walter Scott Prize longlist every year because it invariably introduces me to authors and books I would otherwise never have come across.

In three words: Engrossing, thoughtful, authentic

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James RobertsonAbout the Author

James Robertson is the author of The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack, And the Land Lay Still, The Professor of Truth and To Be Continued.  Joseph Knight won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year;  The Testament of Gideon Mack was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize; and And the Land Lay Still won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. Robertson is also the author of four short-story collections and numerous children’s books written in Scots. He runs an independent publishing house, and is co-founder and contributing editor of Itchy Coo, which produces books in the Scots language for young readers. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

Connect with James
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