Learwife by JR Thorp: A brilliant fleshing-out of King Lear’s forgotten woman

Vivid reimagining of the queen shows the Shakespearean scholar what they’re missing

The queen is a complex character, on the one hand deserving of sympathy, on the other brilliantly defiant about her brutal mothering style

The queen is a complex character, on the one hand deserving of sympathy, on the other brilliantly defiant about her brutal mothering style

“Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.” It’s hard not to think of King Lear’s famous admonishment to his daughter Cordelia when reading JR Thorp’s debut novel, Learwife. In a way the book can be seen as a response or challenge to this line, as Thorp creates a new voice from nothing, that of the silenced and banished wife of Lear, who is only fleetingly referenced in Shakespeare’s play.  

Learwife is an original and highly accomplished debut that reimagines the life of a woman written out of literary history. With its story of motherhood, fealty and loss, the book offers a fresh perspective on an age-old tale. Although the queen’s name isn’t revealed until the closing chapters, a quick and powerful intimacy forms between character and reader from the outset. Her story – of banishment to an abbey 15 years earlier, shortly after the birth of Cordelia – is also the story of her family. One of the joys of this book is seeing characters such as Goneril and Regan through a new lens, that of a mother who may or may not be complicit in their downfall.

The Irish Times
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