Learwife

JR Thorp

Canongate, £14.99

Review by Neil Mackay

Whatever happened to King Lear’s wife? It’s one of those questions that literary scholars have entertained themselves with for generations – along with the likes of “did Lady Macbeth ever have a child?”.

JR Thorp makes Lear’s “missing” wife the subject of her debut novel. Learwife begins with the Queen banished to a nunnery. The book is filled with little Shakespearean in-jokes, like this nod to Hamlet’s famous “get thee to a nunnery” line – a way of entertaining Bard-nerds like me. The Queen (we irritatingly don’t learn her name until the end) was sent into exile not long after the birth of her last child, Cordelia.

The novel opens as Shakespeare’s play ends – with the Queen discovering that Lear, Cordelia and her two wicked sisters, Regan and Goneril, are dead.

This is a strange book – lyrically beautiful but dynamically limited. The psychological drive of the Queen is, from the start, to leave the nunnery she’s been held in for 15 or more years and visit the graves of her dead daughters and husband.

By the time the novel is halfway through, the Queen is still planning to visit the graves. At the three-quarter mark, she has gone nowhere. Nothing much changes – this failure to satisfy expectation continues to the end. Don’t wait for events to grip you. They won’t. The book sometimes veers close to repetition, even boredom. The Queen seems, at some points, to do nothing but ponder how she should leave the nunnery. In that sense, the novel feels more a companion to Hamlet and his interminable procrastination than Lear and his terrible narcissism.

The writing saves the book. Thorp is truly poetic. She’s remarkably gifted at layering time and personality within just a few sentences. In some paragraphs, we’re with the Queen in the present – both inside her mind, experiencing events as she experiences them, and also with the Queen in the past, again privy to both her interior and exterior worlds.

Thorp’s is a refracted, impressionistic style, a lyrical staccato stream of consciousness – not so broken and haphazard as to confuse, but almost prismatic, throwing off glimpses of the Queen and what’s going on inside a woman in love with the very idea of herself and her own power.

The writing takes on a disintegrating form as the book advances – charting the decline of this women from girlhood to maturity and on into old age. As a work which conveys the complexities of one human soul, it’s exemplary.

The best sections are those which imagine life at the court of Lear, where everyone is corrupted by the malign influence of total power. There’s joy too in the many references to Shakespeare’s play. One of the book’s central threads is the series of tests which the Queen imposes on a pair of nuns who are rivals for the position of abbess. It’s a little nod to the test Lear forces his daughters to engage in at the start of the play, which sets Shakespeare’s tragedy in train.

Thorp, however, does herself an injustice from the beginning by even hinting that this book will take us places, that there’ll be movement and event. If she’d allowed her readers to acclimatise to this work as the study of an interior life, of a woman coming to terms with her past and her present, then Thorp’s audience would likely be much kinder to her. As it is, readers may feel somewhat tricked and cheated.

What little action there is centres on the life of the nunnery – through which the character of the Queen emerges. She’s an unpleasant woman to be around – cold, unloving, sadistic, snobbish, stupid. In truth, she is the female version of her husband in Shakespeare’s play: a tyrant.

The book sort of works as a feminist tract in reverse. It seems to say: if you are in any doubt that women can be just as monstrous as men, then come and have a look at Mrs Lear and her hideous offspring. There you go, the novel shows us – women and men are equal, even in their worst traits.

Yes, the Queen is a victim of male power – but then everyone in the book and Shakespeare’s play is a victim of male power in the shape of Lear. The only mitigating factor for the Queen is that her rough treatment at the hands of Lear – and the other men who had control of her throughout her life – may act as excuse for the truly awful human being she has become.

If that is the point – to show us a woman turned cruel by the actions of men – it’s a tricky path to walk. Readers risk being so alienated that they don’t wait for the moral or intellectual thrust of the work.

If readers need characters to identify with then they will have to seek out the company of minor players. The abbess, the Queen’s suffering handmaid, the nun Calyssa – these women provide some light. All, though, are brutalised by the Queen. As the book ploughs forward, with the Queen infuriatingly planning her never-going-to-happen trip to the graves of her family, you almost will her to leave the nunnery so these decent women can be free of her.

As with the endless “will she ever leave the nunnery” trope, the book also tries to tease readers with the puzzle of why Mrs Lear ended up in the abbey in the first place. What did she do to deserve her banishment?

The resolution comes far too late. The cause of banishment is indeed powerful and shocking. It indicts the men in her life, the women in her life – and crucially the treatment of women at the hands of men. However, come the stage of learning the truth, it’s impossible to feel for this wretched character.

HeraldScotland:

This should have been a great book – it’s built on a wonderful idea: the fleshing out of a character missing from literature. Whilst written with great elegance, it will unfortunately lose too many readers through its unnecessary longueurs.