Book Review: Learwife

learwife

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Shakespeare’s King Lear was based on Leir of Briton, a legendary king whose tale was recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. The Bard modified the ending of the story, turning it into the famous tragedy. In both versions there exist the machinations of an aging king and his three daughters. The girls’ mother, the queen, is assumed dead but barely warrants a mention. JR Thorp has taken this lacuna and filled it with a fascinating character – an astute and cunning wife banished overnight to a convent following the birth of yet another daughter when a son was desired.

Learwife opens with a messenger arriving at a northern abbey bearing news of the death of Lear and his daughters. The late king’s resident wife, fifty-five years old, the past fifteen spent in rooms from which she appears only when fully veiled, enters a period of mourning for the family she loved but who turned her away. No reason for this punishment was ever given. She was permitted to take with her just one young maidservant who has remained loyal.

The queen has befriended the Abbess but otherwise kept herself apart from other residents of the abbey in which she remains incarcerated. Now, assuming herself freed from obligation, she allows herself to be seen. She plans to leave and pay her respects at whatever graves Lear and their daughters may have ended up in.

Plans are made and thwarted, the queen discovering that Lear had never countenanced recalling her as she had always expected. Still, she continues to plot her departure until a deadly sickness strikes and the abbey is placed in quarantine. The balance of power within its walls shifts and the queen, newly emerged and taking an interest, finds she has become legend. She draws the nuns to her as she once did courtiers, recounting nuggets of her history and finding these women know more of certain gaps than she does.

The story is told from the queen’s point of view and permeated by her memories. The reader learns that she spent a portion of her childhood in another convent, confined until she was old enough to marry the boy she was promised to. She was there to be trained in obedience. It was not a happy upbringing. The hunger instilled could never be sated. She learned young how families regarded their surplus girl children.

“Overflow daughters, pious children of overstuffed houses, or the poor ones: to send a girl for a nun because a dowry was too dear is old practice.”

Once married she gradually acquired the skills required to manipulate to her advantage, taking advice from Kent who became a trusted friend. Her first marriage was unhappy but in Lear she found a husband who valued her council. She encouraged him to be ruthless when needed, a trait that may have worked against her when she could not birth a live boy child.

“Who ever thought that gentleness is the nature of women! When it is such violence – that we come from, that we live within.”

Lear loved his daughters but regarded them as a useless legacy – another powerful man demanding a son that his wife, once beloved, could not provide. The queen wished to be valued by her daughters, to offer them the mothering she was denied. That she punished misdemeanours as she felt was needed, and would countenance no other woman influencing them, led to tensions whose cost she did not foresee despite her astuteness.

“Is there any pain like a child who does not want you anymore”

The denouement sees quarantine lifted at the abbey and the queen changed. She has made friends but also enemies, understandable given her behaviour. Within the cloistered walls there exists a microcosm of a kingdom.

This is a clever idea for a tale providing interesting historical fiction with breadth and depth. The language employed is not Shakespearian but fits well in the period and setting – both skilfully rendered. The restrictions within which a high born woman of the time must live – how she may use cunning to gain power but this may at times misfire – are only one element of what is a character driven narrative.

The telling, however, is slow paced. The reveal of the queen’s history is too often circuitous with gaps filled gradually and, by then, mostly predictable. The plot is impressive, as is the writing, but a tauter delivery would have been more engaging. That said, it is a book I am glad to have read.

Any Cop?: A beguiling new perspective on why Lear’s daughters behaved as they did.

Jackie Law

Book Review: We that are young

We that are young, by Preti Taneja, is a fabulous reworking of King Lear. Having enjoyed a number of adaptations of this Shakespearean tragedy on stage I was familiar with the direction the arc of the story was likely to take. This did not in any way detract from my enjoyment. The book is big in size, scope and depth. The action is set in modern India and offers a masterclass in the country, its people, and the stubborness and hurt inherent in wider family feuds.

The tale opens with the return of a son, Jivan, banished to America with his mother when he was thirteen years old. Prior to this he had been one of five young playmates, although as the child of his father’s mistress had never been permitted full integration into the privileged lives of his friends. His half brother, Jeet, and he grew up alongside the three daughters of a hugely wealthy businessman, Devraj, who is also Jeet’s godfather. The girls – clever Gargi, beautiful Radha, and baby Sita – have in the intervening years grown into outwardly dutiful and obedient women.

Jivan returns on the cusp of change. The oppulent farm where the family now live is being prepared for Sita’s engagement celebrations. As Jivan is shown around, a lunch is taking place that will be the catalyst to Devraj’s ruination.

Economic growth has enabled India to consider itself a world player and with this has come a clash of cultures. Despite the quality and beauty of local products there is a hankering after western labels. Colour and vibrancy are being toned down, flesh exposed in imported attire. Women desire more freedom and opportunity than tradition permits.

Devraj demands that his daughters regularly demonstrate love and respect for him, in word and deed. When Sita unexpectedly refuses to conform he attempts to punish her by passing on the share of the business he had selected for her, his favourite, to her sisters. Gargi and Radha watch as he reacts to their little sister’s rebellion, envious of her courage but afraid of its effects. They fear their father may be going mad and determine to save the business for themselves.

The story is told from the points of view of each of the five former playmates, with occasional chapters in Devraj’s voice. Their’s is a life of excess, abuse and thwarted desire. When Jeet chooses to leave the farm the reader is offered a snapshot of the lives of India’s untouchables, a contrast that is shocking and telling. Those who grow up in comfort will struggle to understand the psychological effects of poverty, the cost of survival.

Devraj strives for a new India yet fights any attempt by his daughters to embrace change, to relinquish stifling traditions. This generational divide is all too familiar. Elders are eager to force the rules of their upbringing on their children, unappreciative of the differing challenges they must face in an evolving world.

The writing is stunning, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of the region, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the corruption and striving for a better way of life at all levels. Turns of phrase deserve to be savoured, imagery basked in. The story is labyrinthian and should not be rushed.

Although a literary feast this is also a highly readable story. It remains engaging, tense and compelling throughout, despite knowing how it must end. I wanted to applaud that last line, the author deserves all the commendations. Recommended without reservation.

 

If you wish to purchase the cool black limited edition of this title, pictured above, buy direct from the publisher here.

The same words, bound in orange, are also available from discerning book retailers, and from Amazon.