Jo Drayton has Pedigree in writing outstanding biographies of significant women artists so what happened when she turned a professional gaze on her own life?
New Zealand artists Edith Collier and Rhona Hazard have both benefited from Drayton’s intelligent and sensitive portrayals. Her remarkable detective work resulted in the fascinating telling of Anne Perry’s life story. This time though Drayton has put her own life on the page. The Queen’s Wife is a deeply personal account of an unconventional love story that intertwines personal whakapapa with the history of an heirloom chess set.
In a story that benefits from all of Drayton’s skills as a researcher and her outstanding ability for narrative it tells how society reacted to her falling for a woman in the 80’s and the long, emotional and very stressful custody struggle when same sex relationships insist on the same rights as the cis gendered. It picks at the threads in her life and finds a way back to truth.
So much is folded into this story it is hard to do it justice in a review but the way the story weaves back and forth tracing the pedigree of a prized family possession with the stories of Sue’s ( her partner) lineage, the love for each other and the life of of a writer makes you aware of the many different challenges faced that straight people don’t; the hiding of their identity in the workplace, the potential loss of the safe haven they had. That the struggle they experienced is still very real and present in homes and families in Aotearoa makes this a necessary read.
But Jo Drayton is first and foremost a writer who is interested in story. The drama of her personal life spilling over into her own professional life is artfully played. She is clever and funny, drawing the readers into an intimate account of a patriarchal system yet to be reformed. The incredible pressure her and her partner were under to provide a home for their children that would not be questioned by the court system. The completion of demanding studies that were essential to their economic progress. The enormous research required to write her book on Edith Collier and then Rhona Haszard, while constantly moving house is awe inspiring.
Confessional literature always involves strategy. Throughout the book Jo has woven the story of her life into the essence of the game of chess, how each piece is significant to the others, how the game is played – until she broke the rules of life in the early 1990’s. The fortitude shown through financial hardship, through all the
trials of raising their children and the immense sadness that is a part of their life makes this book a triumph of love over adversity. If ever there is a metaphor in this book it is that challenges trigger growth. Drayton has the ability to lay out the board and the players. She has a proven ability to observe and evaluate and she does so with such style and compassion and so much heart.