If there is one book you should read in the remainder of 2014, it is this nugget of perfection. Please let’s give a standing ovation to Rachel Joyce. In this novel which is companion to her bestselling book The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry we meet the ever-so-endearing Queenie Hennessey. I will point out that you do not have to of read one to read the other.
The novel is set out in three letters, which features flashbacks of days gone by, specifically in regards to the man she was in love with, Harold Fry, and her desperation at leaving him having kept a secret which has haunted her to the hospice she now finds herself in. Joyce’s confrontation of Queenie’s inevitably soon death in her first letter: “but the cancer has spread and there is nothing left to be done,” means that her story wastes no time in getting to the nitty-gritty of the main event.
Upon receiving Harold Fry’s response letting her know that he’s coming to see her and to: “wait for me,” Queenie and the residents of St. Bernadine’s Hospice begin a journey to put off death and wait for a man that Queenie wonders if she actually wants to see. And more importantly if Queenie can find the strength within her to tell the truth, not only in declaring her love for this man but for the role she felt she played in a tragic accident that occurred twenty years before.
With the encouragement of Sister Mary Inconnue, Queenie begins to tell the tale of her life, and of her love for Harold Fry. As Inconnue tells Queenie: “Harold Fry is walking. But in another way, even though you’re here, even though you’ve done your travelling, you’re starting a journey too.” With her stiff fingers writing her letters in shorthand and Inconnue typing up the pages of symbols they begin their journey to finish the letter before Harold arrives and before Queenie dies.
Rachel Joyce is a master of words in this novel. Her amazing talent for describing even the most mundane of things is beautiful and she works her words into a compelling and utterly spellbinding book. We know that the life of Queenie Hennessey will end only one way, that she is terminal and that nothing can prevent her death that is coming soon. But what we want to know is how or indeed if she will continue to wait for Harold Fry.
The story of Queenie’s life is emotional to read but for me, it is the present story which runs alongside her flashbacks that I find so perfect. It is the story of the rest of the residents and nuns at the hospice who provide the humour and the sadness. With each resident refusing to die until Harold Fry makes his entrance and each time the undertaker’s van arrives you begin to love each of the characters more. It is with every trip from the undertaker’s van that this novel becomes a sort of celebration of life, of it being too short and of how sometimes it is not the mind that doesn’t want to live but the body that gives up.
Queenie’s story examines many different aspects to life, but perhaps the one that stood out for me the most was how people make hard decisions or how they run away from them. Joyce’s character of Queenie has forever been a runner, but it is only when she has run to the end that she must turn around and face her demons head on and make the hardest decision of all and that is to relive her past and tell the truth.
How Joyce has created such a beautifully sad yet humorous story I don’t know. I am in awe of the talent this book gives off. It is a fantastic story of a journey of truth and although heart-breaking at parts is worth the ultimate sacrifice to find out why Queenie and Harold just have to meet one last time.