We have been following Rachel Joyce since her debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which was also read as an audiobook by Jim Broadbent and would make a terrific movie starring the same). We liked her second novel, Perfect, and, we are pleased to announce, we also like her third book, The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy, which returns to the territory of her debut, with aplomb. Readers of …Harold Fry will need little introduction to Queenie – she is, after all, the frail old lady he sets out to walk across country to when he learns she is dying of cancer. What might surprise readers – even readers familiar with Joyce’s undoubted skills – is just how much of the journey there is to tell, and how much of that journey is undertaken by Queenie whilst Harold is busy getting blisters on his ankles and going somewhat demented himself.
There are some beats here that we know from the first book. We know that she writes Harold a letter because it is a letter that first sets him walking, out of his house to the post box. We also know that when Harold eventually arrives, he sees what he sees, and that Queenie does not have long thereafter. We know that Harold and Queenie worked together once upon a time, that she was on the scene during one of the great tragedies of Harold and his wife’s life, that she saved him, in her own way. We know that twenty years passed when they didn’t see each other, that the letter came all but out of the blue like a lightning bolt. At the time, everything that unfolded within The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry felt like everything. Joyce didn’t overegg the pudding, sometimes said just enough for the reader to get something, but either way succeeded in creating a novel that told a small tale that was at once sad, uplifting and funny, with humility and decency.
There are people who love that first book (we’re among them) and maybe winced a little on learning we were going to get the same tale told again from a different vantage. After all, that’s what we’re getting isn’t it? The same tale again? Apparently – delightfully – not. Of course The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy nods and winks to its predecessor – how could it not? – but it is every bit as distinct and original and entertaining and bittersweet as the book Joyce herself describes as its ‘companion’ (in the afterword, Joyce says it’s best to think of each of these books sitting alongside one another, ‘her in the passenger seat, him in the driving seat. Side by side’). What we have here is a sort of geriatric One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, shot through with the gravity and comedy of something like Whose Life is it Anyway?
Queenie writes her version of events in shorthand to be transcribed by a nun in the end of life care home in which she finds herself, the whole piece an atonement for all of the things that she felt she did wrong, all of the harm that she felt she did Harold and his family, all of the small choices she made that ended up having major consequences. We also get to hear about what Queenie did in the years after she left Harold, the construction of a small home by the sea, a beach garden populated with rocks and stones and bits of wood that represent the major characters from her life (which reminded this reader of the short story in the recent Margaret Atwood collection, Stone Mattress, in which an author hid friends, lovers and enemies from the past within the vast fantasy narrative she had constructed throughout her life). As in the previous book, Joyce is strong on detail – picking out the view from Queenie’s window and imbuing it with the poignancy that can only arise from wondering whether these will in fact be the last flowers I am ever to see. As in the last book, Joyce has the skill to bring a tear to your eye and then distract you while you mess about with a handkerchief, undercutting the solemnity just enough, knowing when to leave a sand effect hanging (such as when the roster of Queenie’s friends becomes gradually depleted as the book proceeds).
I think Rachel Joyce is already something of a national treasure and I think readers of her previous books will snap up this one too. If you enjoyed those previous books and are wondering whether there’s enough difference here to warrant jumping in with both feet, be reassured. Without hopefully trivialising things to too great an extent, we can guarantee: you’ll laugh! you’ll cry! and then you’ll go away feeling enormously grateful you read the book (and enormously grateful for the air passing through your lungs and for the love of the love who love you). You can’t really ask for much more from a book than that.
Any Cop?: Didn’t we tell you? She’s a national treasure.