The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey (review)

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey (Edelweiss DRC)
Rachel Joyce
Random House

We expect our happiness to come with a sign and bells but it doesn’t.

When The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was published in 2012, the novel was short listed for the Booker Prize and won UK National Book Award for New Writer of the Year. And it was that good. Harold Frye, a kind of work-a-day Everyman, goes out one day to post a letter to an old friend who has written to say she’s dying and finds himself walking from one mail box to another until he’s out of the city and into the countryside. A couple miles out, Harold decides he’ll just keep on keepin’ on and deliver the letter himself. He calls the hospice where friend Queenie now lives and asks the nurse to give her a message: “Wait for me.”

Along his nearly 700 mile pilgrimage, Harold reflects on his marriage, his failure as a father, his lonely childhood, and his pedestrian work life (pun intended). Harold dutifully calls his wife Maureen each day and buys souvenir trinkets along the way for both her and Queenie. Writer Joyce also gives the reader Maureen’s point of view and we can begin to unravel the pain and hurt that has scarred this couple for the past two decades. After some little publicity, Harold is joined along the way by a rag tag bunch of followers who co-opt his mission, but he ends his journey as he began: alone. His goodbye to Queenie isn’t what he (or, probably most readers) quite expected.

In her second novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennesey, Joyce tells the story from Queenie’s end. And I must say, I think it’s the better novel.

Love Song of Miss Queenie HennessyQueenie Hennessey, thirty-something and pregnant, moves to Kingsbridge to start anew after a love affair gone wrong. Oxford educated, she’s floated through life, rudderless. Moored by the pregnancy she applies for a job as an accountant and refuses to budge from the office of the misogynistic factory boss who won’t interview a woman for the position. Her tenacity pays off and Queenie begins work, almost just as her pregnancy ends in miscarriage. But in the pain of losing her baby, she’s touched by a stranger–one Harold Fry, a diffident man, rather timid, and very tall. Because she needs to visit the brewery’s accounts scattered around the county and because she is a woman, the brewery boss Mr. Napier delegates Harold to drive Miss Hennesey to her appointments.

And so begins their ten year friendship. Queenie sees it at her job to make the uncomfortable Mr. Frye relax a bit, and he, in turn, treats her with gentlemanly respect and kindness. Queenie finds herself in love, but never speaks of her feelings. After several years, Queenie meets a belligerent (and probably drunk) young man on the street, immediately recognizing him as Harold’s son David. The two begin a secret friendship of sorts, neither mentioning Harold.

As often happens when secrets are involved, tragedy strikes. Queenie sets out again to begin anew, settling far away in a beach cottage in Northumberland where she creates fantastical natural sculptures in her beach garden—figures of driftwood, draped with seaweed and strung with shells. Queenie finds whatever peace she can until cancer strikes, disfiguring her and robbing her of speech.

In hospice, Queenie is cared for by tender and rather eccentric nuns: Sister  Lucy, Sister Philimena, and Sister Mary Inconnu. When news of Harold’s pilgrimage reaches the residents, they follow his trek via the post cards he sends Queenie and whatever news they can find in the newpaper or on television. To help Queenie come to terms with her life and loss, a Sister Mary Inconnu helps her write another letter to Harold Fry, but not “the sort of message he might expect from a gift card. Tell him the truth, the whole truth. Tell him how it really was.”

And so she does. Queenie’s story is, I think, more honest than Harold’s in Pilgrimage. Her voice is tender and raw and so much poetry: “Now that I have shaped the songs in my head and placed them on the page, now that my pencil has turned them into lines and tails and curls, I can let them go. My head is silent. The sorrow has not gone but it no longer hurts.”

Oddly (or maybe not) I read the two novels out of sequence. I got Love Song as an advance reader’s copy and liked it so much I wanted to hear Harold’s story, too. Both books would make a lovely gift pair and both stories are a testament to the extraordinary grace of ordinary lives–but it is Queenie’s words that are  with me still.

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