I love Shakespeare – in fact, the very first theatre production I staged as a director was one of the bard’s. So modern reworkings of his work have always had a special place in my heart. And ones focused on overlooked female characters? Yes please. I was thrilled when I heard of Learwife and jumped at the opportunity to read and review this wonderful novel in the vein of Madeline Miller’s Circe or Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne , though situated a bit more on the literary end of the spectrum. It doesn’t hurt that the cover’s absolutely gorgeous, either.
Many thanks to Lucy Zhou and Canongate for the ARC, all opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 04/11/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
SUMMARY: ’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.’
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. (from Canongate)
OPINIONS: Learwife is beautifully written. I was immediately immersed in the prose, which is always a good sign for a book. The story starts where King Lear’s story traditionally ends: the tragic death of Lear’s family. But his queen isn’t mentioned in the play, and so this is her story, picking up the pieces after the death of her estranged husband and children. It is told non-linearly, jumping between memories and the present day, though it never feels like the thread of the story gets lost in the telling.
I loved that the memories gave us more insight into Lear’s daughters – who, for the most part – only exist as flat archetypes in their own stories. These snapshots gave us a view of who they were as people, as children, as girls growing up. And ultimately, this showed that the story of Lear isn’t the story of a man and his tragedy, but the story of a family – and a family made up of mostly women. As Queen Lear unravels her life and picks up the fragments of her future, she paints a harrowing picture of her family that shows more than the original play ever did.
Learwife isn’t a fast-moving, plot heavy story. It is a meditation, a haunting piece of writing. Everytime I think literary novels might not be for me, something like this comes along and makes me fall in love with the genre all over again – I wouldn’t be surprised if this one will be nominated for awards as well as receive a lot of critical acclaim. It really is a win in my book.