The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey: A Novel – Rachel Joyce

It all began two years ago when the world was introduced to Harold Fry. He was going on a journey, to visit an old friend. That old friend was Queenie Hennessey.

And now we are privileged to read her journey. It is a very different one to Harold’s.

Queenie is nearing the end of her life. What is slowly taking her is has forced her to give up her beach house, her sea garden but not her memories. It is whilst she is at the hospice that she decides to make her own journey just as Harold is making his momentous one.

This is a journey of ‘sitting still and waiting…see what you did not see before’. This is a journey of a letter to Harold, to tell him her side of the story.

As Queenie waits, with the help of one of the nuns at the hospice she composes a letter to Harold. This letter tells him and us all about her life. How she came to end up working with him and then suddenly leaving as she did so and moving away.

It tells of her love that she had for so much, dancing, numbers and even Harold himself but how she was unable to show any of that love. It was all kept in her heart and now as her heart weakens, she wants to share it all.

With love comes guilt and for years it seems that Queenie has held onto something that maybe she should have told Harold about. She became too close to this man and his family, albeit in a rather vicarious way in some instances. At times we were almost voyeurs on Harold’s family life, coping with his wife and his son David. We knew the truth, Harold knew the truth and so did Queenie, but for us to see it played out was very painful to witness. Now all those unanswered questions that were in the first novel were answered. I was intruding on something personal, but Rachel Joyce was writing it so beautifully that it seemed almost permitted.

And the novel could simply be about Queenie’s story but actually Rachel Joyce, makes it very much more. The hospice is now the centre of Queenie’s world and the characters within now become centres of our lives as we share their presence, their past and sadly their inevitable death. All so poignantly put by one simple phrase ‘The undertaker’s van – Well. You know the rest.’. As Queenie waits for Harold so do all the other residents. And whilst Harold tries to lose the people who join him on his journey, fellow residents of the hospice see it is a future, that they all want to be apart of. To see Harold Fry would mean that they have lived longer than they thought they might.

Joyce handles the subject of death and hospices with such care and does not seem to make it the all-encompassing finality of which we see death as. The patients are not there to die as one of the nuns rightly put its, they are there ‘to live until you die. There is a significant difference’. A new journey, a new path is waiting for Queenie as she puts her final thoughts down on paper for Harold to understand the past and why he walked those miles to see her.

The question that many will ask is should you have read Harold Fry before reading this novel? And should we have really learnt about Queenie’s story or should it have been left alone. I think you should read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, simply because it is an excellent novel. It will fill in a lot of background when it comes to reading this one and also I think that it really does enrich the whole reading experience. I am not sure having read this first and then going to read Harold Fry would work, it is if you know some of the answers before the questions have even been asked.

As for whether we should have known about Queenie’s story – then my answer is yes. Maybe you didn’t want to know and that is just fine, but I did and actually I was surprised by the beauty of it all.

Much thanks must go to the publisher and especially Alison Barrow who first introduced me to Rachel Joyce. Thank you to netgalley for providing me with a copy.

I admit to finding it difficult to read in the beginning and this is something which I have not put in my review, because it was more a personal reflection. Although my Nan did not go into a hospice, she did spend her final weeks (at the time we were not aware that these would have been) in a home. It was the tenderness of the way she was looked after and the characters that were in there that brought home to be how wonderfully written these parts of the novel were by Rachel Joyce. The lady who kept her coat and bag on all day and wanted to go home. The rather tall posh lady who read the paper, but actually in reality just kept turning the pages, the lady who knitted the same wool, unpicked it and started again, until the wool was simply a massive knot and the lady who walked up and down constantly complaining of the heat. All such characters. 

Secondly, it is never mentioned what is wrong with Queenie, what time of cancer was going to take her. Actually it was irrelevant. it was not about what was wrong with Queenie, but everything else. However, of the small snippets of information we were given, I was taken back to watching my mother watch her old friend battle with something very similar. The battle was sadly lost and my mum now wears the small silver cross she was given by her friend for being her bridesmaid some forty years previously.