With her debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce deftly portrayed a character who had lost his way in life, and chronicled his long journey toward self-discovery. In her new novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Joyce tells the same story from an entirely different viewpoint — that of his brewery colleague Queenie, whose short letter to Harold prompted his pilgrimage. Although this time the journey is metaphorical, Joyce’s follow-up is equally charming and sure to delight.
The story begins at the end of Queenie’s life. She is mired in regrets as she lies in a hospice in the north of England. Partly, she is grieving that she never revealed her true feelings for Harold, and partly she feels remorse for concealing her friendship with Harold’s troubled son, David. So when she receives a letter from Harold saying that he’s on his way to see her, she views this reunion as the perfect opportunity to make amends. With the help of a kindly nun, Queenie begins writing a series of confessional letters. Fellow patients join her in eager anticipation of Harold’s visit. But fate will decide who arrives first — Harold or the angel of death.
Why we love it
Joyce’s characters are so endearing, you can’t help but fall in love with them, and it’s impossible not to be moved as Queenie sorts through her life’s memories — her sorrows and pleasures — deciding what to tell Harold. Unpredictably, the hospice setting offers many sweet and laugh-out-loud moments, like when a caregiver explains to a glum Queenie upon her arrival, “You are not here to die. You are here to live until you die.” And live she does, learning to delight in small pleasures with newfound friends while never losing sight of the inevitable. Queenie may be near the end, but her world is alive with faith and hope.
After Joyce wrote Harold Fry, she had no intention of continuing the story from Queenie’s point of view, but one day this quiet character shouted to her, demanding to be heard. “As soon as I opened my mind to the idea and voiced it, it seemed blindingly obvious that this was a story I needed to write, I wanted to write,” Joyce says. “How does a woman who is dying wait for a man to walk the length of England?” The backdrop for her novel, Queenie’s hospice, is a place not of darkness but of light. “It is loud, noisy, wild, unexpected; I hope it is funny.” Adds Joyce, “We have made death so fearful… In learning how to die, we accept how to live.”
All about the Author, Rachel Joyce
Born: London, England
Lives: Gloucestershire, England
Favourite place: “My home. There are natural springs, and the view is so big, we can see the sun rise and set.”
Hidden talent: “I can make curtains. I used to make very ornate ones.”
If writing weren’t possible: “I’d be a difficult person to live with.”
What’s next: “I am writing a new novel about music and a man who cures people through music. I am only at the beginning, so everything is up for grabs — but I am happy.”
The Love Song Of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Rachel Joyce, $30.
Start reading next month’s pick! The Boston Girl, Anita Diamant, $32.