|The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: Not a Harold Fry prequel or sequel but a parallel story, told as an extended deathbed letter from Queenie as she waits for Harold to arrive. The humour-tinged hardship of hospice life alternates with touching vignettes from her past. Better than the original.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: October 2014|
|External links: Author's website|
Rachel Joyce envisions The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy not as a prequel or sequel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry but as a companion volume. Giving Queenie's side of the story through an extended letter she is writing to Harold from St Bernadine's hospice as she awaits his arrival, Joyce gives readers a new perspective on her character's unrequited love for Harold, a surprising friendship she kept up with his son David until his suicide, and her sudden move from Devon to Northumbria, where she lived in a quaint beachside cottage and maintained her sea garden until she became ill with cancer.
When I saw Joyce speak at the 2014 Hungerford Literary Festival, she mentioned that she wrote Harold Fry and Queenie Hennessy in parallel. The simultaneous composition, though incidental, emphasises the idea that these two characters are journeying side by side. In fact, Joyce revealed that there are plot crossovers between the novels. For instance, the morning Harold cannot walk for cramp, Queenie is unable to continue writing – also because of cramp. Likewise, toward the end of his walk Harold has to tape his yachting shoes onto his feet; to finish writing her letter, Queenie asks a nun to tape her pencil into her grip.
Death is a different kind of quest; waiting is Queenie's part, and as frustrating as it might be at times, it also offers her chances of truly being in the moment. Contrary to expectations, the scenes set in the hospice are among the funniest Joyce has written. Indeed, she noted that these passages deliberately 'come closest to farce'. There is a wonderful cast of supporting characters: the Pearly King (a posh gent with a prosthetic arm), dour Scotsman Mr Henderson, foul-mouthed Finty, daft Sister Lucy (she never realises Watership Down is about rabbits), and mysterious Sister Mary Inconnue, who helps Queenie compose her letter.
Despite the humour, this is still a hospice: the undertaker makes regular visits. Joyce has always been open about how her father's death inspired Queenie's final journey. Like Queenie, her father died of a disfiguring facial cancer. However, he was terrified of hospice and insisted on dying at home. Researching this latest novel, Joyce spent time at several hospices and found them to be wonderful places. Nothing was off-limits for humour; it was a relief to be able to laugh, approaching death with irreverence. She wishes her father had not resisted the idea. As she portrays it here, hospice seems like a final chance at community and human warmth. Cancer had caused Queenie to withdraw from life, but St Bernadine's and the promise of Harold's visit bring her back to life for her last precious months.
Chapters set in the present day in the hospice alternate with flashbacks to Queenie's early days in Kingsbridge, where she moved after a bad break-up; she was the brewery accountant and Harold was her driver. One key element we learn about for the first time here is Queenie's friendship with Harold's teenage son, David. They met by chance and started going to dances together. Queenie lent David money and encouraged him in his preparations for Cambridge, but he betrayed her, and then she let him down when he needed her most.
Whereas Harold Fry is in the third-person, here we have Queenie's first-person narration, often addressed to Harold as 'you'. This allows for a special intimacy: 'Not a day has gone by when I have not thought of you,' Queenie vows. 'Loving you makes the world more beautiful.' Unfair as it might sound, I have always found Harold to be such a wet character; I've never understood why Queenie would love him from afar for 20 years. Thus I much preferred hearing Queenie's voice.
Particularly inventive are the occasional passages that show Queenie hallucinating after the application of her morphine pain patches. She imagines a horse chewing the curtains, a lady with a grapefruit on her head, and a dog fetching stones. Yet Joyce never takes these so far as to cast doubt on the reliability of Queenie's story.
Also noteworthy in Queenie Hennessy are the literary references. The title pays homage to T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'; there are at least two direct allusions to that poem here: 'We would grow old … we would grow old. You would wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled' and 'I have measured out my life in ladies' shoes.' I also spotted an echo of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca: 'Last night I dreamed I went to my sea garden again.'
Queenie declares, 'My life has been small, it has been nothing to speak of. But the past is still inside me, Harold. I have never let it go.' It is a privilege to hear it here.
Further reading suggestion: You must read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, preferably concurrently or just before this one. Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley tells another ordinary woman's life in an extraordinary way. In non-fiction, try Hospice Voices: Lessons for Living at the End of Life by Eric Lindner.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.