One thing that Shakespeare’s play “King Lear” does not mention is what happened to his wife and queen, the mother of his daughters. When I wrote A Thousand Acres,” I killed her, and gave some memories of her to her daughters. Other writers have been intrigued by her, too; W.S. Merwin wrote a poem entitled “Lear’s Wife” that was published in the New Yorker in 2012. Most of those who resurrect her do so to account for the psychology of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia.

In her debut novel, “Learwife,” writer J.R. Thorp does something more intriguing: She writes about the aftermath of the battle between Lear and his daughters, not only giving us more of an insight into the nature of Shakespeare’s characters, the feeling of their tragic actions and the world that they live in, but also asking “who is she, this lost mother?” “Learwife” is a stream-of-consciousness novel that stays in the unnamed (until the very end) survivor’s mind for 300 sometimes-confusing pages, allowing us to understand what she thinks and how she thinks, thereby illuminating some of the more mysterious aspects of the original play.

At the beginning of “Learwife,” we learn that the narrator (who tells her story in the present tense) has been confined to a convent. Her movements are restricted (not all of her fellow nuns even know she is there, or that she exists), but she has a maid and lives a fairly comfortable life. She knows that the abbess in charge of the convent will probably not allow her to leave. She wants to do so anyway, at least to visit the graves of her husband and daughters and come to some understanding of what happened to them. She would also like to see her old friend and ally, Kent.

“Learwife” is written in an understandable modern style, but it takes place in an undefined historical period where convents and Christianity coexist with pre-Christian belief systems, and this combination of modern style (and, to some extent, a modern sense of the main character’s inner life) has its drawbacks. A reader who would like to picture the larger society and locate where the novel is taking place is out of luck. (Though one clue is that, in the first chapter, a son of one of the nobles is showing Lear and his wife Arabic numbers. When he tells them what zero means, Lear says, “If I have nothing, surely I need no mark of it” and the queen says, “Can you not leave a space?”) Arabic numbers replaced Roman numerals in England in the 1400s. (The original King Leir, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, had been the king of England in the 8th century B.C.) Thorp wants us to see the universality of the feelings of this queen, mother and wife who has been left out of history, and also out of her family’s particular tragedy. She is an intriguing character — older than Lear, previously married to another king whom she adored but who did not return her affections, chosen as Lear’s wife not only to give him sons, but also to guide him as he learns to reign over his kingdom. At one point, she says: “When I married my first husband, I was seventeen, late, the threatening time in a girl’s youth: that hysterical bloom. . . . The second I was twenty-five to Lear’s bare twenty, and hardening . . .” The great mystery, for the wife and the reader, is why, shortly after the birth of Cordelia, she was confined to the convent, where she has been for 15 years.

The convent is not a peaceful community. There is a priest, Brother Manfred, but he has no power, and the conflicts between the nuns, once the abbess dies of a disease that infects the community, mimic the battles in “King Lear” between the sisters. Her death also allows the narrator to emerge and to reveal her queenly rank. But the convent remains chaotic, and more disasters follow.

As with many stream-of-consciousness novels, Thorp has to walk the thin line between a character who reveals her feelings and thoughts constantly, thereby seeming rather self-obsessed and off-putting, and showing what the character sees around her and what the larger picture is. Because the queen is confined and doesn’t understand the larger picture, her detailed narrative can be a little slow. (Reading “Learwife” is a little like reading “Ulysses”: You either get used to it or you don’t.) One thing the author is good at, but is also a challenge for the reader, is exploring how the queen’s own sanity is fading; she is 55, which means that Lear was not even 50 when he started falling apart, but she sees herself as very old, almost immortal. I think the task Thorp chose for herself in writing this novel was to explore the nature (the historical nature) of femininity, both its powerlessness and its power.

This is Thorp’s first novel, but she is an experienced author who was born in Australia and now lives in Ireland. She writes for Bustle and other outlets, and she also wrote the libretto for the opera “Dear Marie Stopes,” about a paleobotanist and women’s rights advocate who wrote a sex manual and opened the first birth control clinic in the United Kingdom. She also won the London Short Story Award in 2011. “Learwife” doesn’t work perfectly, but what debut novel does? Thorp places her bet on psychological complexity that evolves into more psychological complexity as the story unfolds. You may have to read it twice before you take it in, but I believe it is worth it.

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including “A Thousand Acres,” which won the Pulitzer in 1992. Her most recent book is “Perestroika in Paris.”


By J.R. Thorp

Pegasus. 304 pp. $25.95