Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack

Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack, Heidi von Palleske

This is a family saga of five children, covering their lives from childhood to adulthood, from the rise of The Beatles to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is also the story of their parents and their interactions over the years.

The main relationship in the novel is between Johnny and his best friend Gareth. Johnny loses one eye as the result of an accident in which Gareth is involved. They remain friends for the course of the novel, with all the ups and downs that adolescence, early adulthood and adulthood bring. Gareth’s elder brother, who is congenitally blind in one eye, is both help and hindrance to how Johnny deals with his own loss of sight.

Blanca and Clara are albino twin sisters. Gareth first encounters them when they are children; they make an impression that haunts him. But, unlike Gareth’s and Johnny’s own families, the twins come from a broken home. Their mother is institutionalised and their father unknown; they are mostly raised by their grandfather, uncle and Esther, a woman downstairs.

Johnny’s mother, Hilda, arrived in Ontario during the war, and still has some Germanic ways. Johnny’s accident puts her marriage under pressure, and that pressure increases when she takes Johnny back to Germany to replace Johnny’s acrylic false eye with a glass one: the ocularist who will make Johnny’s new eye lived in Hilda’s house when she was growing up.

From that setup, the novel moves at a compelling but leisurely pace as relationships grow stronger or weaken, as secrets are discovered and tensions revealed, as talents are discovered, developed or neglected. The action spans Hamburg and Ontario and, perhaps because the author assumes her readers are already familiar with Ontario, the Hamburg is much better depicted. The references to pop culture are spot on, as are the allusions to the politics of the day.

Of a decent-sized cast of characters, there was only one I didn’t quite believe – Uncle Bob – whose role is critical yet not very presaged. We are not shown his conflicts until a little too late for his action to convince. The others are all people I’ve met or people very much like them, and I felt myself wrapped up their lives. And this made it all the sadder that the homosexuality was brushed off with so little comment: this was the eighties and homosexuality was still a big thing.

But the novel is not about homosexuality, or even about sexuality. It is about relationships which endure, a study on why some do and some don’t; it is a portrait of a skill that has been lost to the world, and about becoming an artist. It’s a book that I will reread.

My only gripe is loose writing: “rubbing linseed oil into the huge, round table, bringing it to a high polish with her elbow grease” – grease? Oil? Neologisms pop up “Germany is behind the curve,” and, in the following paragraph “to network,” but that passage is set in the 70s before “behind the curve” and “networking” entered the lexicon. And, in an otherwise moving conclusion, a character ends a succession of paragraphs with the word “to love.”

These are minor gripes and easily fixed. I enjoyed reading this book. Keep an eye out when it hits the shelves.