• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack by Heidi von Palleske

The book introduces some fascinating detail and interesting themes, but the story frequently feels choppy and unfinished.

In von Palleske's novel, two young boys share the experience of a tragic accident. When the friends later encounter a set of identical twins with albinism, the life paths of the boys and girls become intertwined as it winds along the shores of Lake Ontario and into gritty Berlin from the 1960s to 1980s.

The book started off a little disjointed for me. I found the strengths to be the detailed explorations into society's judgments of and expectations about visible attributes like albinism and false eyes, forays into the precision and artistry of the making of glass ocular prosthetics, middle-aged characters finding love again, and how characters used their unusual physical attributes, rejected by society, to showcase significant artistic gifts.


Different characters reckon with aging and physical changes, ailments, the end of life rushing toward them--and regrets about avenues they have pursued or avoided, or lies they have told themselves. I found myself wanting even more about the tough female survivors (Esther and Hilda) of atrocities, their feelings of survivor responsibility, and the pressure to live their lives in certain ways in order to honor those who died in order to not squander their precious lives.


The dialogue in Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack is frequently (but not consistently) formal-sounding, often without contractions that naturally occur in speech patterns. The grown men's speech especially felt as though it didn't flow naturally. (And with one notable exception, von Palleske's grown male characters are almost universally and purely weak, shallow, and/or evil, without shades of gray.)


Especially after a point about halfway through the book, abrupt scenes and exchanges, short glimpses of dramatic moments (as at the movies), and spoken zingers that ended brief scenes made the pacing often feel choppy and as though the book were a draft rather than a finished work. The story, its tone, and its characters felt uneven. Conversations seem to often not follow, or else to wrap up unnaturally quickly. Important characters move away and aren’t addressed again. Characters’ unusual career paths (ocularist, opera-punk singer) are laid out by others and then, against all odds, fall perfectly into place.


The focus on albinism and incest seemed presented in an exploitative or fetishistic way.


The author's note mentions that the published book appears almost exactly as she originally wrote it. As there is not a train-of-thought, avant-garde, stream of consciousness or other unusual structure to the text that seems to warrant this, the story seems as though it could have been strengthened by the convention of undergoing drafts, edits, and revisions.


I received a prepublication copy courtesy of Dundurn Press and NetGalley.



Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

I mentioned Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack, which will be published March 9, in the Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 3/3/21 Edition.