Review: Lear Wife by J.R Thorp

‘This is what women do. If my daughters had ever listened to me, they would know.’

***Content warnings for death of a child and spouse, plague, self harm, rape, physical and mental abuse, animal death, isolation and hysteria.***

Tis not often these days I buy a book on a whim or without prior knowledge of it from somewere. That can be as basic as seeing it on a library shelf, hearing or seeing another person talk about it or the name in a list on Reddit. Lear Wife is one I did pick up one random Saturday and I really enjoyed it so very glad I did!

Word has come. Care-bent King Lear is dead, driven mad and betrayed. His three daughters too, broken in battle. But someone has survived: Lear’s queen. Exiled to a nunnery years ago, written out of history, her name forgotten. Now she can tell her story.

Though her grief and rage may threaten to crack the earth open, she knows she must seek answers. Why was she sent away in shame and disgrace? What has happened to Kent, her oldest friend and ally? And what will become of her now, in this place of women? To find peace she must reckon with her past and make a terrible choice – one upon which her destiny, and that of the entire abbey, rests.

Giving unforgettable voice to a woman whose absence has been a tantalising mystery, Learwife is a breathtaking novel of loss, renewal and how history bleeds into the present

This is going to be one of those books that people either love or don’t at all and for a number of reasons. The writing as beautiful and poetic, full of descriptions that feel right out of a dream. The story itself is told as a stream of conciousness almost, the narrator switching and jumping between past, present and dream herself without as much as a sentence of notice. All the while during it we’re left wondering, who is she?

The book starts with the narrator being informed of the death of King Lear and her daughters. And from there, we begin to understand her role in the overall tale. It’s worth noting she goes unnamed for the majority of the book, being referred to only as ‘Queen’ or ‘Lady’. There are many moments over the book where she comes to realise she has a name, or someone asks her does she remember. I actually reallt enjoyed this aspect of the book since it adds to the overall mystery about Lear’s wife. We discover in the first few words that one night, Lear had her and one inexperienced maid taken to an abbey and ever since then she has lived among these nuns as a cross between an exile and a prisoner.

Now granted, this is definitely one of those books that is mostly ‘vibes’ and light on the actual plot but there are other stories happening outside of the narrators own saga. For example a plague of some kind infects half the nuns, there is a power struggle between a few, the eternal question of if she can leave or will leave but we only see them enter the main story when the narrator is paying attention. This is very much a book that is in the main characters head all the time where one moment she will be reminiscing on the birth of her youngest daughter when suddenly next sentence she realises that she is in the Abbey’s garden. It’s very surreal almost how it plays out.

As a main character, the narrator is exceptionally developed. It becomes very clear that although she was very clearly wronged by both her daughters and husband, she’s not exactly the most morally pure. Her tales of her daughters where they sound like they neglected her and favoured Lear are often revisited with perspective mentioning something she didn’t the first time. Arguably the best developed character besides the narrator is either Lear or Kent, both who already exist in the play. Though I never studied King Lear so unless that’s a cultural osmosis thing, I still felt they both were very real.

The journey of the book, despite all the things that do happen as the book continues, there is this constant feeling of hope? Like as you would in the same situation, the narrator wants to leave the Abbey and be free. That is a simplified description of her intentions. But the journey is one back to herself in places, to remember her name and how to be a person. To not be in a shadow. It feels very relevant from the environment of isolation we find ourselves coming through.

I feel this was a very vague review but this is an extremely moody book with borderline gothic reading so it kind of has to be. I do intend to read Tessa Gratton’s books this year too so we’ll see how they compare but this is definitely a nice hidden gem of a story and a great start for starting Irish fiction. Thank you so much for checking in guys, happy reading!

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