Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

Reading Anne Tyler’s 20th novel  A Spool of Blue Thread, reviewed here, first felt a little like turning to the back of the book before reading it through. This is how it ends, three generations upended, we found out how they came to be and what their origins were at the end.

ladder of yearsI wanted to try another Anne Tyler novel to have a better sense of her work and so I asked around for recommendations and eventually decided on Ladder of Years.

What a great book!

Still set in the same small town Baltimore, another family, this time we are inside the mind of Delia Grinstead, the youngest of three adult sisters, daughters of a local GP who has recently passed away. He had been living with Delia and her husband, who is also a GP, one who took over the practice from her father where Delia remained the administrator, first to her father, then to her husband, never leaving home.

A smooth transition from daughter of the Doctor to wife of the Doctor, the same home, raising three children, taking the same holiday year after year, viewing the same holiday neighbours over the fence year after year, speculating about their family members, having never spoken a word to them.

Delia doesn’t appear disgruntled, but one day while on holiday she walks off down the beach (a bit like our Harold Fry) in her husband’s beach robe and just keeps going.

What follows is something like the winding back of the clock, a version of what her life might have been, had her husband chosen sister number 1 or sister number 2 and not sister number 3, Delia.

It’s not dramatic, it’s almost sensible, if we can use that word about someone who just walks out on their life like that. She expresses no hatred, disappointment or loss, she thinks only about herself in the present and responds always to the requests of others – rather than see fault in her own actions, she interprets others confusion or hurt with, “if they had only asked”, she offers little proactively and yet will respond to anything if asked.

ladderShe is something of an enigma and at first I wondered how she could so easily leave behind her children without much thought, then I wondered if she was menopausal, because at that time women lose a lot of that hormone that makes them so fiercely protective and maternal towards their children, or were they just more grown up and less in need of her?

She doesn’t have a lot to say about her motives, it is as if she acted without understanding the deep need inside her to move. Another reader commented she reminds me of a spoiled youngest born who does just about everything without motivation

I don’t have much of an insight into youngest borns as a type, but Delia was certainly quietly mysterious, I found the novel compelling, without any clear or stated motivation, she was unpredictable and yet ever so conservative.

Brilliantly constructed, a compelling read, I really enjoyed Ladder of Years and was intrigued right up until the last page. And bizarrely, there is also a spool of blue thread in this book, a small detail written twenty years ago(published in 1995), that would one day grow up to become an entire novel of its own.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

Rachel Joyce’s debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry told of the spontaneous walk that became a pilgrimage, by the unassuming and little-loved ex brewery salesman Harold Fry. He went out one day to post a letter to his former colleague Queenie Hennessy whom he had learned was nearing the end of her life in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland.

Harold decided to keep on walking, wearing a pair of inadequate boat shoes, no money or warning to anyone, he walked for weeks, hoping Queenie had received his message to wait for him. We knew little of Queenie’s story or history and even less of what she was going through and how she perceived Harold’s act of spontaneity, until now with this second book, which takes us back to the beginning of the story, interpreted now from Queenie’s point of view.

Rachel Joyce brings us inside the mind of Queenie, who upon hearing from Harold decides to write him an extremely long letter, going right back to when she first applied for a job at the brewery where they both worked, including her first memorable glimpse of him, her undying and denied, unconditional love for him and her never spoken of relationship with his troubled son David.

As well as revealing her relationship and hidden feelings for Harold, we meet her fellow patients in the hospice, diminshed physically yes, but with their characters fully prominent, intact and proudly on display, from The Pearly King, Finty, grumpy Mr Henderson to the nuns who take care of them.

Queenie receives Harold’s letter which reads:

I am very sorry.

Best Wishes.

P.S. Wait for me.

and learns from Sister Catherine that he has called from a telephone box, in Kingsbridge, South Devon, something about waiting and that he was walking.

Harolds Journey“I knew your writing. One glance and my pulse was flapping. Great, I thought. I don’t hear from the man in twenty years, and then he sends a letter and gives me a heart attack.”

 

“I held tight on to your envelope, along with my notebook. I saw the dancing of crimson light beyond my eyelids as we moved from the dayroom to the corridor and then past the windows. I kept my eyes shut all the way, even as I was lowered onto the bed, even as the curtains were drawn with a whoosh against the pole, even as I heard the click of the door, afraid that if I opened my eyes the wash of tears would never stop.

Harold Fry is coming, I thought. I have waited twenty years, and now he is coming.”

The next morning Queenie wakes to find a new volunteer in her room who has observed her crying in her sleep, the nun, who introduces herself as Sister Mary Inconnu, reads Queenie’s hand scribbled message that said it was too late to wait for Harold and suggests she write him a second letter, that she will help her by typing up her notes each day.

She said, “I have a plan. We’re going to write him a second letter. Don’t forget, you opened this can of worms when you sent your first one. So now you need to finish. Only this time, don’t give him the sort of message he might expect from a gift card. Tell him the truth, the whole truth. Tell him how it really was.”

Harold’s walk is just one of the many journey’s represented, everything becomes a symbol of slow perseverance towards some kind of end; Sister Lucy and her jigsaw puzzle of England, the pieces placed progressively over the weeks of Harold’s walk revealing regions of England and Wales, racing towards the Midlands; Queenie’s own 20 year story of unconditional love, the evolution, growth and eventual destruction of her sea-garden; her friendship with David and the deathly progression of disease among the hospice patients, they who hold onto the very last threads of existence, their spirits given an additional and unexpected thrill in following the increasingly heard-of pilgrimage of this Harold Fry,  albeit alongside the less joyous symptoms of bodies in decline.

Despite the sad circumstances, it’s a fun book to read either alone or as a companion to Harold Fry, it is written as a second person narrative, using “you” just as she would have done in writing a letter, which has the effect of limiting the perspective, in a similar way that Colm Tóibín did in his 3rd person limited perspective of Nora Webster, reviewed here. Queenie’s narrative was less frustrating for me than Nora’s, possibly because she is reflecting on the past that can not be changed. I found it quietly compelling, tragic and humorous both, often surreal.

Love_song_by_ShinyLittleBird

Note: This was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the US publisher via NetGalley.