Book Review for “Learwife” by J.R. Thorp.
Summary: “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.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary/Speculative, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical; UK; Other Categories: Novel, Fictional Biography, Psychological, Poetry.
First of all, it is no surprise to learn that Thorp was named one of 2021’s ten best debut novelists by The Guardian, since this novel is certainly unique. In that article, they say this book is “Written in luminous, lyrical prose, it’s a book that defies easy description, being neither historical novel nor fantasy, but mining the best bits from each genre.” I happen to agree with this, and I’m wondering if literary is really the right place to put this; it is almost speculative fiction, a la Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace” in which she gets into the mind of this woman who was convicted of murder and spent most of her adult life in jail. In this book, the unnamed Queen has spent a over 15 years in this nunnery, after being exiled by her husband, the famous King Lear – probably because she didn’t give him any sons, and only bore three daughters. Thorp also takes us into this woman’s mind, starting at the point when she finds out that her husband and all three of her daughters are dead (which we know is how Shakespeare’s play ends).
The Guardian’s assessment of Thorp’s “luminous, lyrical prose” is a touch of an understatement, if you ask me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am someone who (I believe my regular readers know) can truly appreciate poetic prose; in fact, I often mark books down because they’re not expressive enough. However, with all the expressiveness, you need substance as well. What I mean by that is, the thing I thought when I first started reading this book was that it was all icing and hardly any cake. Yes, icing is delicious and well, it is the “icing on the cake” so… it is supposed to be the best part. But, without enough of the cake, you might get a little bit overloaded with the sweetness. In this case, early on, I felt I was struggling to get more of the cake flavor to come through. Thankfully, Thorp slowly brings those parts more to the forefront as the book progresses, so that in the end (no, this isn’t a spoiler), you get the full, more rounded, experience of the whole cake, and not just its elements. Mind you, it does take a little while, so if you decide to read this, do be patient. However, once it does, you’re really in for an interesting read.
If I may go back to my comparison to Atwood’s “Alias Grace” I should mention that Atwood’s novel is told almost totally chronologically. Thorp’s book, on the other hand, has a very fluid timeline, but without having timelines, per se. See, Thorp makes this more into a stream of consciousness type of story, where this Queen is experiencing a kaleidoscope of emotions, since hearing of the death of her second husband and the three daughters she had with him. Obviously, when you are in mourning, you often think back on the many memories you had of the people you’ve lost – both good and bad. Thorp has the queen interspersing these memories with what happens in the nunnery, and draws on both the mistakes and good decisions of her past to help her decide how to move forward with her life. With this, Thorp also brings back the queen’s memories of her first husband, his death, and the other people in her life that molded who she is in the present. Furthermore, if you think about it, if you’ve ever experienced grief of this kind, the way the lyrical parts slowly give way to the story is much like how mourning works, which in its own way, is genius.
While most readers who know the play “King Lear” will see some parallels here, one thing that I found significant that I don’t think many readers will notice is that the companion/maid that the queen has here is named Ruth. I quickly related this Ruth to the biblical one – the woman who leaves her home in Moab and follows Naomi back to Naomi’s homeland. The devotion of Ruth to Naomi felt very much like a parallel to the Ruth in this book, and her devotion to the queen. I’m not sure that was intentional, but I appreciated it, one way or the other. Now, I don’t think this book will appeal to everyone; I think many people will have a hard time with the poetic prose here, and might lose patience with the slow way the story comes through. However, once I started feeling that balance, I really got into this book, and I can recommend it for those who like lyrical novels. For all this, I think this book deserves a very healthy four out of five stars (and I hope Thorp writes more books, because I’ll be happy to read them. Plus, I’d like to see that opera).
Pegasus Books (a division of Cannongate Books) released “Lear Wife” by J.R. Thorp on November 1, 2021. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and The Book Depository US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and US, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.