Review of Learwife by JR Thorp – Out of Shakespeare’s Shadows | fiction

TThink of the end of a Shakespearean tragedy: the bodies thrown across the stage, the impression – until the last full rhyme – of a very bloody arrangement. But think again, and of course it’s not tidy at all. And especially not for the families left behind.

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

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Learwife is fully told from her point of view. She is trapped in the convent, and we are trapped in her head; a narrow and often uncomfortable point of view – but also a view as broad 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 falls through itself. JR Thorp, who has written short stories but is best known as a librettist of choral works and especially opera, uses these loans sparingly. Certain sentences can only spring up, a bit like they skip when you come back to Shakespeare, because they have entered the language so much that you have the impression that the man who invented them is writing clichés. In Thorp’s hands, they are effective appoggiatures on other deliberate echoes of structure – love tests, false courts, blinding – or subject matter: ungrateful children, grief.

Learwife is the dark side of King Lear’s moon, a distaff tragedy about “a queen greater than he was a king,” as Kent put it at one point. Tough, often unsympathetic, she is still at the center of a twilight of violence: “I am a woman who appreciates the fall of shock on a face. But she didn’t start that way, and at its own center are memories of being a child bride of a man whose love of God excluded her, and then, when he died, a bride. older to volatile Lear. In either case, she was to, as the “womb of the kingdom”, produce a male heir, a task at which she failed. As the novel progresses and her claim that she will now take her rightful place in the world begins to crumble, her certainties about who she is too: “A life lived with two weights on it, kings , has no real center. So I am at random. So I swim in an incomplete or incorrect emotion.

This novel deals with the challenge of being a woman and the unintended consequences of trimming girls to match their constituency. The narrator takes us from the hope of a first motherhood (“When my daughters were born I grabbed their bodies and said Yes. They would know me, my milk and my scent, my hip line; I would dive into their life up to the arm, 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 crying. And I was the winner ”- which kind of helps fill the void as to why Regan and Goneril might have acted the way they did.

The book is about sorrow and the objects of that sorrow, but above all it is about power. How to acquire power (such a fierce process in a convent needing an abbess as in a country needing a king), how to exercise it, how to keep it. How to sit still and watch how “the row breathes in the room”, then play that row like a lyre; how “to lay down a stratagem like a park and watch the horsemen frolic in the thickets”. And then, finally, and too late, to know the cost, for everyone. “Lear, I am devastated by the success of my own vocation. “

“They were bad with the tongue, my daughters,” Lear’s wife thinks at one point. “I thought he was a servant when in reality it was the power itself.” Thorp doesn’t have that kind of problem. She has a virtuoso order. Over and over again, I wrote lines and sentences for their enjoyment. There are paragraphs that could have had a page on their own, like almost lyrical poems: “I am so inundated with myself now, with happiness … I could become a web of green flesh and bones, for them. eel nests and leech fish. The little frogs could sing in my pond.

The risk, of course, is that this richness can capsize the art of the novel, and sometimes, especially in the first parts, threatens to do so. Abundance draws attention to itself, threatens to weigh down history like a branch overloaded with flowers. A nosebleed doesn’t have to be “a burgundy collar, either.” Royal vermilion ”- not least because it can create a distance between the reader and the character. And there are tics of rhythm and generalization that we could have quite dismissed. But in the second half, intrigue and emotion rise to meet the language. I finished with Learwife feeling totally involved: emotional and exhausted.

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

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