I should start by saying that yes, I did read Harold Fry’s story first, and of course, I loved it. I’m not sure I would have picked this one if I hadn’t, but I need to start with that. I missed all the hoopla when The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry came out, so when I saw this one offered on NetGalley I jumped to read it. I had good intentions to start it right away, but it was in the middle of a very large to-read pile and it took a while for me to get there.
This book answered so many questions I had about Harold’s story, particularly, what sort of woman could convince a long-married man to trek across England with just a simple note? Rachel Joyce answers that, and so many other questions I never even realized I had, and I almost think I liked this book more than the first one. Perhaps it is because Queenie’s story has so much more meaning knowing his, I don’t know. Reading this, I was reminded of the book Wicked, which added a completely new dimension to The Wizard of Oz, a revelatory backstory that made you rethink your ideas about each of those beloved characters. In a similar manner, Joyce adds entirely new information, some merely hinted at in the previous novel, and other parts wholly new.
I loved Queenie Hennessy, but I didn’t always like her in this book. She was naive in so many ways, particularly when it came to Harold’s son, David. But sometimes, even more than Harold and Queenie, I loved the inhabitants of the hospice, and the many ways they brought Harold’s walk into their lives. This is a beautiful, sad, wonderful story, and the perfect companion to Harold’s journey.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, author, Rachel Joyce; narrator, Celia Imrie
The author bills this book as a companion to “The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”. In that book, Harold is trekking 600 miles across England, trying to reach the bedside of a friend in hospice care. Queenie Hennessy and Harold Fry have not been in touch for the last 20 years, but she has suddenly reached out to him. Touched by her letter, he drops everything and begins walking across England, from one side to the other, encouraging her to hold on and to for him to arrive. Whereas the first book was written from Harold’s perspective, this one is written from Queenie’s. This book is written with the same lightness and humor, rich with simple truths and marvelous characters. Even though the main character and her fellow residents are all dying, the book is not morose. Rather this book stresses the need to continue living, not to continue dying as so many do, but to enjoy life, taking pleasure from whatever opportunity presents itself and never giving up until death takes us in its arms. Harold Fry’s journey and Queenie’s effort to wait for him is a love story, a confession, an apology, and an expression of appreciation. It is also inspirational, as the reader joins the other hospice patients eagerly awaiting his arrival, hoping that they, too, will live until that day.
At the end of her life, Queenie seemed to be driven by the need to tie up her loose ends by making a full confession to Harold about something she had done that concerned him and his family. She believed that her actions were responsible for a tragedy that touched him, and that she must explain it to him so that she could be forgiven. This book, then, is the tale of Queenie, how she became who she was, how she came to write the letter to Harold, followed by a journal which was her full confession. It is the world as it was viewed from her eyes. The reader will learn abut the many sacrifices she made for Harold and of the ways in which she interfered in his life. It is about her unrequited, forbidden love for him and about her hidden relationship with his rather disturbed son. It is about a woman who managed to find the strength to recreate herself when necessary, to join in the life of her community, whether it was at home or in the hospice, and to enjoy her own company even when life seemed too difficult to face. It is a story about the beauty of the small things in life that we often overlook; the trees, flowers, rocks, scents and friendships are appreciated. The kind and patient Queenie always seemed to find the silver lining that she sought and often helped others to discover.
Queenie’s character and Harold’s son David’s character are much more fully developed and explored in this book, and there is a decided absence of his wife, Maureen. David was suffering from his own life threatening illness, depression and alcoholism. David was obsessed with life’s injustices and yet he committed more of them without remorse as each day passed. As his mental illness robbed him of a full life, he robbed others. He stole, not only Queenie’s money and possessions, but her poetry, and as a byproduct, his ultimate actions also stole a piece of her lifel. The book is Queenie’s memoir of sorts. It is her acknowledgment of her feelings and of her improper relationship with his son.
This book is really not about her death, though, but about her life. It is about everything having a season. Even her own beautiful seed garden was not immortal, nor was the child she lost. There are term limits on everything, it seems, but that doesn’t mean that the limit is what should be stressed, rather it is the time before that end date is reached that is important. The end of the book held some surprises for me and I had to listen to some of it over and over. The author truly dealt with the experience of dying, and yet it was not morose, rather it was enlightening. The patients were dying, but in that experience, they developed camaraderie among themselves and still took pleasure from life as they enjoyed each other’s company. If nothing else, this book sheds a light on how to treat those of us who learn, prematurely, of our own expiration dates. We all want to be treated with dignity. We all seek support and comfort when it is given sincerely.
The book was poignant as it concentrated on the interactions of the patients, the medical staff, the nuns, and those that inevitably watched and waited for Harold. Harold’s walk inspired them all to try and live another day, as it also illustrated how sometimes life hijacked one’s true purpose, so that the original meaning of one’s effort was lost in the shuffle due to the unwanted interference from others. Harold’s compassionate effort was usurped by those who sought the spotlight for themselves. They lost sight of the reason for his travels, which was to keep Queenie alive a bit longer, and were more interested in their own journey’s completion. His journey was a vehicle that explored human nature for good and ill.
The narrator provided a wonderfully sensitive reading in which the characters were perfectly drawn. The author wrote in an easy, simple but expressive prose. The words flowed so smoothly, making it a comfortable, tender read that never bent to the melodramatic. The dialogue between the patients and the nurses was often humorous but also very authentic and touching.
When Harold told Queenie she must wait for him to arrive, he somehow believed that she would continue to live. As Queenie tells she story, the reader will be rooting for her and for Harold. She had never faced her problems head-on before, and in her delusions, that she calls morphine dreams, she faces them squarely. Harold also wants to face his past and wishes to apologize and thank Queenie for protecting him. Did Harold arrive in time?
I wasn’t sure in the end about some of the parts. Were they real or delusions. Like Queenie, I entered her dream state, albeit without the morphine. I listened to the audio, and I think it truly enhanced the narrative in this book as each character came distinctly alive in their own special way, from the crotchety Mr. Henderson to the sweet Barbara and the marvelously compassionate nuns who encouraged the patients to live life everyday rather than contemplate their impending death. As was often thought and said, there was plenty of time for that.
Neither a sequel or a prequel to Harold Fry, The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy is instead written from her side of the story rather than Harold's. For me this was the better book, I liked Harold Fry but this one had something more. I loved the parts that were relating events that happened in the hospice. I could laugh at parts of it and feel emotional at others.
I had forgotten some of the first novel but it didn't really matter, both books do work well on their own.
The ending left me feeling devastated. I knew what the outcome was but parts of it I hadn't expected. Will be interested in further novels by Rachel Joyce.