JR Thorp’s debut novel Learwife, a reimagining of the life of King Lear’s queen, was published on November 4 by Canongate.
Thorp was one of the Observer’s 10 best debut novelists of 2021, and won a Markievicz Award from the Arts Council of Ireland this year to write her second book.
An Australian lyricist and librettist, she has had work commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and St Paul’s Cathedral. Born in Australia, she now lives in Cork.
The books on your bedside?
I’m travelling to promote Learwife at the moment, so my bedside is far away, but my battered e-reader comes everywhere. My current reads are a mix of research for the next novel – Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, Tim Flannery’s Europe – and beautiful evergreen things I come back to constantly such as Ann Wroe’s Six Facets of Light and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous currently has many underlinings in it, too.
The first book you remember?
I grew up in a book-filled household in Australia so the first books I remember are May Gibbs’s Snugglepot & Cuddlepie, and Norman Lindsay’s illustrated The Magic Pudding, complete with a natty-looking koala in a boater.
Your book of the year?
George Saunders’ A Swim in The Pond in the Rain; my agent sent it to me and I’ve devoured it. When We Cease to Understand The World by Benjamín Labatut was also brilliant and brutal. I seem to operate on a year-long fiction delay, so ask me in 2022 what I think of this year’s Booker shortlist…
Your favourite literary character?
Italo Calvino’s Marco Polo from Invisible Cities is one of my favourites. The whole cast of Anna Karenina from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Tolstoy’s novel is up there, too, as is Marilynne Robinson’s Lila.
The book that changed your life?
Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I’ve read it so many times that the cover has fallen off and is floating around my house. I didn’t realise when I first read it in my teens that books could do that: form a kind of prose mosaic out of moments, glances, little sensations.
The book you couldn’t finish?
[VC Andrews’] Flowers in the Attic. It was assigned as part of a Gothic literary unit at the University of Sydney, and remains to this day the only thing I’ve chucked across the room at full force. I even finished [Dan Brown's] The Da Vinci Code after seeing 15 people reading it at the same time around a resort pool the year it came out.
Your Covid comfort read?
I spent a lot of time with the mystery novels of Ngaio Marsh, watching her characters Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy solve theatrical murders. Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights was also a source of little gleaming joys.
The book you give as a present?
As a person in her 30s, people around me do seem to keep having babies, so often I give beautiful children’s books. I tend to stock up on lovely ones from my own childhood when I visit Australia, such as Possum Magic by Mem Fox, to be given once kids are old enough to understand what a lamington is. (It’s a cake.)
The writer who shaped you?
Anne Carson. I did my PhD partly on her work and how it treats silence and the failure of language as things to be embraced. There’s always something interesting to be examined when you can’t find the words.
The book you would most like to be remembered for?
Learwife is a great start, but I hope I have many more books in me. Somewhere. Perhaps behind the kidneys or something.