When Queenie Hennessy discovers that Harold Fry is walking the length of England to save her, and all she has to do is wait, she is shocked. Her note had explained she was dying. How can she wait?
A new volunteer at the hospice suggests that Queenie should write again; only this time she must tell Harold everything. In confessing to secrets she has hidden for twenty years, she will find atonement for the past. As the volunteer points out, ‘Even though you’ve done your travelling, you’re starting a new journey too.’
Queenie thought her first letter would be the end of the story. She was wrong. It was the beginning.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is Rachel Joyce’s third novel, and also the third that I’ve had the privilege of reading and reviewing. I came across her first, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, on Adventures With Words’ first Booker Longlist read back in 2012, and at the time I was surprised by my enjoyment of Harold’s wild and impulsive journey, but also by the way in which Joyce moved me, with her gradual revelations of shocking events of Harold’s past. Since then, Joyce has had second novel, Perfect, published to much acclaim, as well as a short story, but here she returns to a character from her debut, Queenie Hennessy.
As soon as I heard the title of this novel, I was thrilled that Queenie was to be given a voice. I found her a fascinating part of Harold’s story, but always had the feeling that there was more her than the apparently staid and conservative exterior. Here she reveals for us, in semi-epistolary form, her view of her own life and her connection to Harold and his son, David. The Love Song has allowed Joyce the chance to flesh her out and also to add detail to The Unlikely Pilgrimage; this is not a sequel but a companion piece. And yet…it’s more than that, too.
Queenie’s story is compelling in itself, with an electric and vibrant protagonist, engaging but still fallible, ambitious but constricted by society’s view of women. You could easily forget that the story is being told in flashbacks by a women with a few weeks – days – left to live. As she writes – and narrates – for us, Queenie is old, with a disfiguring facial cancer that is ravaging her body, and resides in a hospice. Despite her health, her new home, with its volunteers and fellow residents, gives her a new lease of life and the self-belief to confront events that have haunted her for years.
In my review of Perfect, I praised the way that Joyce writes about subjects that are often taboo – social class, mental health – and I feel that here, again, she is at the forefront, casting aside barriers of terminal illness and old age, to bring us characters who are making the most of the time they have, looking at life in a new way.
“The tree above us was a canopy of bright lime leaves, each one shaped like an eye and with perfect crinkle-cut edges. Where the sun caught them they shone luminous, while those in shade hung a deeper green. I took in the solid torso of the trunk, the curls and wrinkles in the grey back, the milky covering of moss where the sun could not reach. I gazed at the exuberant bow of the five central branches, like sturdy shoulders, and then I moved by eye to the entanglement of twigs and leaves. I watched the insets busy in the white cluster of blossom, the birds balancing in the upper branches. Sister Mary Inconnue was right. It was the most marvellous thing, that tree, now that we sat and took notice. It was hilarious…
Sister Mary Inconnue wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. ‘Dear oh dear. We really should sit and laugh at trees more often.’”
We shouldn’t forget that this celebration of life and nature is set in a hospice. The Long Song of Miss Queen Hennessy is picante with a bittersweet air of the inevitable, as Queenie and her new friends are forced to confront their own mortality on a regular basis. The joy of hope becomes ever more exquisitely painful, the longer Queenie waits for the arrival of Harold, for her and for us too as readers. The happy memories we read about, the beautiful moments and amazing landscapes conjured by Joyce’s subtle and delicate prose, are always tempered with the knowledge that there are things that Queenie would rather forget and that there only a short time left for her to make her peace. If you’ve read The Unlikely Pilgrimage, you’ll know whether of not Harold arrives in time. I had but was still gripped by Queenie’s journey, although hers is internal rather than geographical.
It’s at this point that I’m going to get a little evangelical… If you haven’t yet read a book by Rachel Joyce, why not? It’s rare that I’ll award five stars when completing my reading journal on Goodreads but I’ve never awarded anything less to all three of Joyce’s novels. It’s even more rare that I’ve been moved to tears when writing a review of a book but The Long Song has done it. I’m still thinking about Queenie, Harold and David and that is very special. Queenie’s voice is one that will stay with me for a long time. Please, go, read The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy and give yourself that gift too.
Thank you so much to Doubleday/Transworld for sending me a copy of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy to read and review. The Love Song is out now in hardback, at £14.99
Rachel Joyce is currently on her own journey around the country – do pop along and see her if she’s in a town near you…