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The Queen’s Wife by Joanne Drayton

‘Life is a game of chess. You should try playing it with two queens.’

So begins Joanne Drayton’s memoir The Queen’s Wife, which examines the implosion when two married women met in 1989 and fell in love, threatening to cost them both their children, families, and friends and forcing them to reassess their sexuality, identity, and heritage.

But this is a memoir with a difference. Along the way it takes us on an exploration of art, biography, folk lore, archaeology, whakapapa, creativity, and identity.

Fiction weaves in and out of Drayton’s real-life recollections as she retells the theories and folk lore behind the famous 12th Century Lewis chess pieces. As Drayton notes, the game of chess is an apt metaphor for her own love story and for life, which is ‘…a contest of strategic cruelty, of pieces won and lost, of sacrifices made to survive.’ The narrative also throws into relief the heteronormative laws embedded in the game and the chaos that ensues when one challenges those laws: ‘Two queens in courtly love on the board changes everything. The laws of nature are defied. The rules of engagement are tipped upside-down, and each move is uncharted.’

The Lewis chess set is a mystery and a metaphor, connecting the memoir’s various narrative threads. Ultimately, it inspires Drayton to carve her own chess set, incorporating Sue’s whakapapa, which traces back to the first Māori King, Te Wherowhero. The book’s release coincides with the end of that fourteen-year-long carving project, and the two queens of the set feature on the cover.

At times, The Queen’s Wife struck me as more of a personal exercise in catharsis than a story written with readers in mind. It felt, in places, over-burdened, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the author had tried to pull together too many strands, and tell too much story in one book.

But isn’t life like that? How can we demand tidiness and pared-back perfection when the author’s life and experience have been anything but? It is up us, the readers, to savour and take from it what resonates. There is much to admire, not least Drayton’s crisp writing style, moments of humour, and bravery in sharing what is at times a harrowing, though never overwrought, account of love and loss.

It’s a full and rich feast, even if it takes a while to digest.

Reviewer: Patricia Bell

Penguin Random House


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