Learwife by JR Thorp review – out of Shakespeare’s shadows

·5 min read

Think of the end of a Shakespeare tragedy: the bodies cast across the stage, the impression – down to the last full rhyme – of a very bloody tidying up. But think again, and of course it isn’t tidy at all. And especially not for the families left behind.

Learwife begins where King Lear ends. “The word has come that he is dead, now, and the girls. And that it is finished.” The speaker is his wife, who has been shut in a nunnery since Cordelia was a baby. No one has told her why she has been “unwritten”, as she puts it at one point: “Hacked out of the book.” She has not heard from her family for 15 years; the one line in which Shakespeare mentions her suggests that she’s dead. Now she must reconstruct for herself what happened, and the shape of her loss.

Learwife is told entirely from her point of view. She is trapped in the convent, and we are trapped in her head; a cramped, often uncomfortable vantage point – but also a view as wide as memory, of marriage to two kings (Lear was the second), of children and politics and war and love. “The world is an O, and is outside and inside, and falling through itself” – that O recalling Shakespeare’s “wooden O”, of course, yet another world-containing enclosure, as well as King Lear’s famous nothings. JR Thorp, who has written short stories but is best known as a librettist of choral works and especially opera, uses these lendings sparingly. Certain phrases cannot but leap out, rather in the way they leap out when one goes back to Shakespeare, because they have so entered the language we might feel the man who coined them is writing cliches. In Thorp’s hands they are effective grace notes on other deliberate echoes of structure – love tests, mock courts, blindings – or subject: ungrateful children, grief.

Learwife is the dark side of King Lear’s moon, a distaff tragedy about “a greater queen than he was king”, as Kent puts it at one point. Tough, often unlikable, she is the still centre of a penumbra of violence: “I am a woman who enjoys the drop of shock onto a face.” But she didn’t start that way, and at her own centre are memories of being a child bride to a man whose love of God shut her out, and then, when he died, an older bride to volatile Lear. In both instances she was required, as “the womb of the kingdom”, to produce a male heir, a task at which she has failed. As the novel proceeds, and her assertion that she will now take her rightful place in the world begins to crumble, so too do her certainties about who she is: “A life lived with two weights upon it, kings, has no true centre. So I am haphazard. So I swim in incomplete or incorrect emotion.”

This novel is about the challenge of being female, and the unintended consequences of trimming girls to fit their circumscriptions. The narrator takes us from the hope of first motherhood (“When my daughters were born I reached for their bodies and said Yes. They would know me, my milk and smell, the line of my hip; I would dip into their lives arm-deep, up to the shoulder, like a woman picking reeds in a river”) to the reality of parenthood as a collision with discrete selves. “They left weeping. And I was victor” – which goes some way to filling the void of why Regan and Goneril might have acted as they did.

The book is about grief, and the objects of that grief, but above all it is about power. How to gain power (as cut-throat a process in a nunnery needing an abbess as in a country needing a king), how to wield it, how to retain it. How to sit still and watch how “rank breathes in the room”, and then to play that rank like a lyre; how to “lay a stratagem like a parkland and watch riders blunder in the copses”. And then, eventually, and too late, to learn the cost of it, to everyone. “Lear, I am undone by the success of my own vocation.”

“They were bad with language, my girls,” thinks Lear’s wife at one point. “Thought it was a servant when really it was power itself.” Thorp has no such problem. She has a virtuosic command. Again and again I wrote down lines and phrases for the pleasure of them. There are paragraphs that could have had a page to themselves, as near-lyric poems: “I am so flooded with self now, with happiness … I could become a web of flesh and green bone, for eel-nests and leeching fish. Little frogs could sing in my pelvis.”

The risk, of course, is that this richness could capsize the craft of the novel, and sometimes, especially in the earlier parts, it threatens to do so. Abundance calls attention to itself, threatens to weigh the story down like a bough overburdened with blossom. A nosebleed doesn’t also have to be “a necklace of burgundy. Of royal vermilion” – not least because this can create a distance between reader and character. And there are tics of rhythm and of generalisation that could have been weeded out a fair bit. But in the second half plot and emotion rise to meet the language. I ended Learwife feeling utterly involved: moved and exhausted.

Learwife by JR Thorp is published by Canongate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.