Reviewed by Ali Hope
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is the much anticipated companion novel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This novel has a parallel narrative, rather than carrying on where the first book left off, and readers would benefit I think, from having read Harold Fry first. The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy is a tender, funny and delicately executed novel of friendship; gloriously intimate, I found it even better than the original.
“This is my second letter to you, Harold, and this time it will be different. No lies. I will confess everything, because you were right that day. There were so many things you didn’t see. There are so many things you still don’t know. My secrets have been inside me for twenty years, and I must let them go before it is too late. I will tell you everything, and the rest will be silence”
As Harold Fry, an old work colleague and friend of Queenie Hennessy, slowly makes his painful way on foot to Berwick upon Tweed and the St. Bernadine’s Hospice where Queenie is dying, Queenie begins a letter to Harold. The novel is this letter, a letter in which Queenie speaks directly to Harold and seeks to lay bare the past. With the help of a new hospice volunteer, Queenie begins to tell the story of her friendship with Harold Fry, which began twenty-four years earlier when Queenie started work in the office of the brewery where Harold worked in Kingsbridge, Devon. Queenie is running out of time, seeking absolution, all she has to do is wait for Harold, a man she never forgot once in all the years since she last saw him, a man who now believes that as long as he keeps walking, his old friend will live.
Queenie’s story told in flashback is of the four years she spent working with Harold, and the solitary life she lived afterwards on the Northumberland coast. Harold tells everyone they met in a stationary cupboard, while Queenie knows they first met in the canteen. Queenie remembers the first time she saw Harold Fry, on a snowy evening in the brewery yard.
“Caught in a square of light from the window, you lift one arm and your shadow does the same. You wave and your shadow waves back. Then you raise your left foot and shake it a little and so does your Harold double; he shakes his foot too. Once again you check carefully that no one is in the yard, no one is watching and then you strike a new pose. What are you up to? I’m hooked. 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.”
During these four years the friendship grows, although it seems the relationship is rather more important to one of them. Harold in his early forties is a married man with an almost grown up son, Queenie is thirty nine, nursing a broken heart and looking for a new start when they first meet. Harold begins to drive Queenie to appointments with Brewery clients, and she learns more about Harold’s wife Maureen and his son David, and buys him chocolate bars. Interspersed with Queenie’s recollections of her past is the story of the people in the Berwick Upon Tweed hospice, the staff and patients, who are all waiting for Harold Fry, looking out for the postcards he sends as he makes his way North, getting caught up in the excitement and expectation. Sister Lucy tries to complete a jigsaw of the United Kingdom; the curmudgeonly Mr Henderson barks grumpily from his day room chair, new patients of all ages arrive, while others sadly depart. The irrepressible Finty in her elasticated purple slacks and green turban, The Pearly King and Barbara are amongst the friends who become determined to wait for Harold with Queenie. Harold’s unlikely pilgrimage is one of over 600 miles; a man unused to walking, wearing yachting shoes, it takes him twelve weeks.
Following her hurried departure of Kingsbridge, Devon twenty years before, Queenie makes her home in a tiny cottage on the Northumberland coast, where she dedicates her life to her sea garden, and remembers Harold. I found myself swept up by the image of this healing coastal retreat, Embelton a place where I spent a week’s holiday several years ago.
The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy is a joyous reading experience. There is naturally a bittersweet poignancy to this story of aborted friendship, unrequited love, and terminal illness, but nothing about this lovely novel is depressing. I really rather envy those of you who have yet to encounter these wonderful characters.
Rachel Joyce has surely produced another winner, and I hear tantalizing rumours of a film. Whether it is one film about the first book, and then a film about the second or one film merging the two stories – I’m not sure, but I think it will translate wonderfully to the screen. I await further news with interest.
Rachel Joyce, The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy (Doubleday, London, 2014) 978-0857522450, hardback, 368 pages.
Ali blogs at Heavenali.