Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Lost Love of Harold Fry & Miss Queenie Hennessy

Recently a friend lent* me The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy but then I heard it was in fact a sequel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry so I bought that and read it first.  In fact the author, Rachel Joyce (I think I'd love her as a friend), prefers them to be thought of as companion works rather than sequels and prequels.
Harold Fry, retired and saddened by his loveless marriage and one shockingly tragic event in his life, receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a woman he worked with many years ago. She writes to let him know she is in a hospice with not long to live. Harold, upset, writes the flimsiest of replies but when he heads out to post his letter, decides to keep walking until he can deliver his note to Queenie in person, 600 miles away at the other end of England, a feat which he hopes will keep her alive. His trials along the way and the people he meets tell us a lot about the human heart.

Description of landscape in literature is pretty much out of favour these days. I love it—writing it and reading it—but many others are scathing and roll their eyes in disdain. So imagine my pleasure in finding that Harold is liberally sprinkled with descriptions of the English countryside such as:

"It had never been such a beautiful May. Every day the sky shone a peerless blue, untouched by cloud. Already the gardens were crammed with lupins, roses, delphiniums, honeysuckle and lime clouds of lady's mantle. Insects cricked, hovered, bumbled and whizzed."

So right now you're either gagging or thinking 'gosh I must read this!' (And it was long listed for the Man Booker prize.)
In Queenie these beautiful images abound but are even more touching because the beauty of landscape is all Queenie has, apart from her memories of her long and unspoken love of Harold Fry.

"I could lose a morning trying to identify the colours and shapes in a rock pool; anemones with long black tentacles, rust-green flowers, silvery barnacles, skittering black crabs and pink-spotted starfish."

Despite the subject matter, neither book is maudlin. Queenie herself can be very droll:

"I should add here there are things I have tried to lose. A pair of slippers I won in a tombola. A sunflower ornament that clapped its plastic leaves as daylight came and released a refreshing odour of such chemical toxicity that all my bean seedlings died."

Of the two books, I loved Queenie more. It's wry, funny, heartbreaking and peopled with characters you might never forget, from the selfless nuns who run the hospice to some of the terminally ill patients, including the foul-mouthed Finty who won't die without dress-ups and a fight, and who, in her final days, learns to tweet and says 'Fuck! I'm trending!"

There is a beautiful, personal piece by Rachel Joyce (left) at the end of Queenie in which she says "I set out to write a book about dying that was full of life." In this she has succeeded well. Both books are set to be much loved for a long time to come.

And I do find all that description of landscape very gratifying. I hope it becomes a trend.


* past tense of lend - lent or loaned? I had to look it up.

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