Learwife by JR Thorp
(Canongate, 2021)


by JR Thorp

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. History has not taken my body, not yet.

From a seed in Shakespeare’s KING LEAR, where the queen is a character entirely absent from the text and only mentioned twice, in passing, JR Thorp spins an unforgettable story about love, motherhood, grief and power. LEARWIFE is set in the medieval period and told from the perspective of the queen herself, a cunning political player utterly without remorse. She has been exiled to an abbey for fifteen years, since the birth of her youngest daughter, for an unknown offence. After discovering the devastating deaths of her husband and daughters, she encourages the women of the abbey into a competition for her approval that devolves into savagery, while she grasps an ever-shakier hold on reality. Her narrative is interwoven with her memories, as a queen and mother who conceived a family plagued by madness, deceit and tragedy.

LEARWIFE breaks free from realism, fully immersing the reader in the queen’s lived experience, opening the doors to a world that is both inspiring and horrifying in equal measure. In the vein of feminist alternative histories like Margaret Atwood’s THE PENELOPIAD or WIDE SARGASO SEA by Jean Rhys, but with the temporal layering and poetic lyricism of LINCOLN IN THE BARDO, this thrilling debut novel is accessible both to fans of the play and to the uninitiated.