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