“It’s all very well for a man to set out of his front door and tell his friend to wait while he walks the length of England. It’s an entirely different kettle of fish when you are the woman at the other end.”
When Queenie Hennessy discovers that Harold Fry is walking the length of England to save her, and all she has to do is wait, she is shocked. Her note had explained she was dying. How can she wait?
A new volunteer at the hospice suggests that Queenie should write again; only this time she must tell Harold everything. In confessing to secrets she has hidden for twenty years, she will find atonement for the past. As the volunteer points out, ‘Even though you’ve done your travelling, you’re starting a new journey too.’
Queenie thought her first letter would be the end of the story. She was wrong. It was the beginning.
Note: As this is a companion book, there are inevitable spoilers for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in this review.
For over two years, we’ve wondered about Queenie Hennessy. Queenie, the catalyst who sparks Harold’s journey in the first book, was always a somewhat mysterious figure to the readers, so when Rachel Joyce told us that she was writing her side of the story, there were many happy readers (myself included). There’s something special about Harold’s book, and I couldn’t wait to dive into Queenie’s background.
“People think you have to walk to go on a journey. But you don’t, you see. You can lie in bed and make a journey too.”
Let’s be clear here: because this is a companion book to Harold Fry, you already know the outcome. You know what Queenie doesn’t about Harold’s journey, and you even know about Queenie’s physical state. If you are expecting a different novel, one with a different ending and that stands alone from UPHF, then you will be disappointed. It is this prior knowledge that makes reading her story all the more bittersweet, and this is a more somber book as a result. It’s not without its own heart-wrenching twist on its own, and there were moments where I had to put this book down in order to compose myself.
We learn quite quickly that Queenie Hennessy is, and has always been, desperately and silently in love with Harold Fry. What we didn’t know, however, is that this love is unspoken for a reason, and that Queenie has actually selflessly given of herself for Harold’s sake more times than he can know. While Harold’s son David alternatively fascinates and disturbs her, she cannot say no to him, helpless as he falls deeper and deeper into despair. I loved learning who Queenie was – about her love of dance, about her head for numbers and the million tiny ways that she tried to show Harold that he was loved, all without recognition.She is a unique character, solitary in her daily existence, and highly observant of the lives of others around her. Queenie sees what many do not, and takes note when people are unhappy, upset or lost. She gains and loses friends, never really finding that core group of support, so she must support herself. She has suffered loss, and suffers with the knowledge of her past every day.
Just as fascinating as the flashbacks were the present-day moments, where we slowly realize Queenie is not the only one who is waiting for Harold. Throughout the book we come to know the other characters, and they bring colour to Queenie’s quiet existence. As this is a palliative care hospice, we know that there is only one ending for each character, but we still hope and cheer as each character finds a bit of themselves again. Goodbyes are never easy; as this group comes together and begins to form bonds with each other, each loss hits the reader harder and harder.
Queenie’s letter is intended for Harold, but it Queenie who is set free by her dictation to Sister Mary Inconnu. “We expect our happiness to come with a sign and bells, but it doesn’t” she observes, and it is in the quiet honesty of Queenie’s reflections that we find her confession and her ultimate absolution. Joyce’s beautiful use of language will leave your heart in your throat, and you will miss Queenie as you close the pages. A must read for fans of Harold Fry.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is published by Doubleday Books, a division of Random House of Canada. It is available for purchase from your friendly independent bookseller, and from Indigo and Kobo. ISBN: 9780385682824, 352 pages.