It was not without some trepidation that I began to read the latest book from Rachel Joyce. The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry was a big hit in 2012 and long listed for the Man Booker Prize and I couldn’t help wondering if this might be an attempt to recreate that success, a rather half-hearted ‘spin-off’.
Harold Fry tells the story of the eponymous hero’s journey on foot across the length of England , sparked by receiving a letter from Queenie, a woman he had worked with years earlier. Along the way Harold becomes something of a media sensation whilst we learn the story of a life half-lived and the gradual deterioration of his marriage.
In her introductory letter to The Reader, Joyce explains that this latest book is not intended as a prequel or sequel to Harold Fry but rather a companion piece in which we learn Queenie’s side of the story and what compelled her to write that letter to Harold.
Queenie is unlucky in love and leaves Corby ending up in Kingsbridge , Devon to escape another affair gone wrong. Having obtained a job in the local brewery, she is drawn to Harold when she first catches sight of him surreptitiously dancing in the snow in the brewery yard :
‘ With your left shoulder lifted,your elbows tucked into your waist and your hands poised, you begin a soft shoe shuffle in the powdery snow. You glide a little to the left, a little to the right, sashaying your body this way and that, balancing gently on one foot, then on the other. Once, you even twist your heels and give a full turn. All the time you dance, you keep an eye on your shadow and you’re grinning, as if you can’t quite believe it has the energy to keep up with you.’
So begins Queenie’s infatuation with Harold . Harold is married to Maureen however and so she tries to remain at a distance. Despite her best efforts, Queenie becomes enmeshed in the tragedy of Harold and Maureen’s life together and carries a burden of guilt even as she tries to build a new life for herself faraway in Northumberland.
Queenie is now resident in St. Bernadine’s Hospice, Berwick-upon-Tweed and dying of a disfiguring cancer. When she receives Harold’s letter informing her of his intention to visit, Queenie, with the help of one of the nuns, begins a series of letters giving her side of the story.
All this could make for a very depressing or even mawkish read but interspersed with Queenie’s confessional, Joyce gives us a compassionate and sometimes humorous glimpse of hospice life.
In Harold’s story we meet an array of characters that he stumbles across on his journey through Britain. Here the characters we meet are the other residents of St Bernadine’s. A group from disparate backgrounds and with clashing personalties all thrown together by the great leveller. Finty, in particular, is a great comic creation.
As the media circus around Harold grows, the residents all become caught up in the carnival. They are all determined to celebrate his eventual arrival. Queenie’s courage and strength are starting to fail and she begins to refuse the vitamin drinks the nurses bring round in the evening. Finty encourages her
‘ It seems like you have a man walking the length of England.There are some of us here that haven’t even had a visitor. So the least you can do is not kick the bucket. Now, I know you think you look like a monster, but this is hardly a beauty pageant. Look at Barbara here. The Pearly King has a plastic arm, and I am carrying the contents of my bowel in my handbag. Either you take the drinks like we do or you’ll end up on a drip feed. Which is it going to be?‘
The unpleasant drinks are drunk :
‘Thank fuck that’s over,’ said Finty, rubbing at her mouth and her sweatshirt. ‘Let’s have a game of Scrabble.’
I am not sure that this book is better than Harold Fry, as some reviewers have suggested, but it is at least as good. A very enjoyable read full of warmth humanity and comedy.
The Love Song Of Queenie Hennessy is published by Doubleday on 9th October 2014 and thank you to Alison Barrow for the review copy.