‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey’ by Rachel Joyce (2015) – 362 pages Grade: A
“And so I set out to write a book about dying that was full of life.” – Rachel Joyce
Like Rachel Joyce’s first novel ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, her new one ‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ will make even a grown man cry. Readers will be moved, but some may feel that they are being manipulated into strong emotion.
We begin at the hospice where Queenie is staying until she dies. There are a varied group of patients there all in the same sad boat. Of course there are helpful nuns there to care for the patients. There is a lot of conversation, much of it black humor. The nuns try to lift the patients’ spirits as much as possible, but one of the patients is a grumpy old man named Mr. Henderson who says things which are guaranteed to deflate everyone.
Queenie writes her letter to her old friend Harold Fry, and he begins his long walk from the south of England to the north of England to see Queenie. He sends regular updates to Queenie, and soon the entire hospice is following his progress. It is almost like that instead of waiting for death, they are now awaiting the arrival of Harold Fry.
Occasionally throughout the novel the undertaker’s van shows up, and there is one less patient in the sitting room of the hospice. But new patients arrive.
Most of ‘Queenie’ is taken up with the back story of how Queenie met Harold Fry on the job. They worked in the same brewery, she as an accountant, and he as a sales manager. She is drawn to Harold, but he is married and has a son. The attraction between Queenie and Harold is always implicit, never explicit. That makes it a more powerful force.
“People are rarely the straightforward thing we think they are.”
The great talent of Rachel Joyce is in framing scenes which must come from her experience as a writer of radio plays. With a few lines of dialogue she can capture the life-affirming emotion being played out in any scene. Just as in Charles Dickens, here you sometimes realize you are being manipulated into strong feeling but you can’t help but feel it anyway. Reading ‘Queenie’ is a bit like reading ‘The Christmas Carol’. You know you are being used mercilessly, but you fall for it every time.