For her third novel, Rachel Joyce has written a companion piece to her best-selling debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In that novel, after 20 years of silence, Miss Queenie Hennessy sent a note to Harold Fry, an old friend and work colleague, to inform him that she was in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed and dying. His surprising response was to tell her to wait for him as he set out to walk 627 miles from South Devon to see her.
While waiting for Harold, Queenie is persuaded by one of the nuns caring for her to write another letter to Harold, this time explaining what had led her to take up residence in Kingsbridge, where she met Harold, and what had made her leave so suddenly. It is a task that immediately lifts Queenie’s mood and so the story of how this very self-contained woman fell in love with the seemingly unremarkable Harold Fry unfolds in flashback.
Joyce has the knack of making even the most improbable premise feel perfectly plausible. Queenie is one of those people who always seem to cope with adversity but up close the fissures in her carefully constructed façade reveal a woman of deep passions who has led a lonely life. She never loses her sharp sense of humour and this makes her a gifted observer of the minutiae of everyday life. Her developing relationships with the nuns and some of the other patients reveal as much about Queenie as her long letter to Harold does. A young nun dedicates a corner of the day room to the postcards Harold sends as he traverses the country and soon the other patients are as eager as Queenie for Harold to reach the hospice. This provides some gently comic moments and pitch-perfect black humour that Joyce writes so well.
Queenie’s tale is all about the old-fashioned virtues of duty and loyalty, with personal feelings locked away for the greater good. It is also about the price paid for such sacrifice and asks if remaining silent is cowardice or perhaps true bravery.
Throughout, Harold Fry is the unseen presence whose strange journey has breathed new life into a small group of people slowly dying of boredom as well as disease. Harold’s enthusiasm encourages Queenie to open up to those around her and find moments of joy even as her life slips away. It is not necessary to read Harold’s story before reading Queenie’s to enjoy this bittersweet novel which is a pleasure in its own right. However, reading both will only serve to double that pleasure.