Saturday, November 15, 2014
REVIEW: THE LOVE SONG OF MISS QUEENIE HENNESSY
Prim and proper. Those were the first words that came to mind when Queenie Hennessy appeared in Rachel’s Joyce’s bestselling novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Dressed in a loosely-fitting brown wool suit and smiling demurely, the brewery’s first female accountant behaved impeccably in the workplace and whenever Harold drove her to business appointments.
But there was more to the “colleague” relationship between Queenie and Harold. Why else would a dying Queenie send a scrawled note to a man she had not seen in over two decades? And why would Harold walk 627 miles to help keep Queenie alive?
In The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Ms. Joyce provides the answers.
For starters, Queenie was not an accountant. She was a Cambridge classics scholar who persuaded the belligerent owner to hire her by promising to save the brewery five hundred pounds. Afterward, she began a program of self-education, spending days at the library reading about bookkeeping and finances.
Queenie also had a checkered past.
In addition to holding positions more suited to her education—tutor, researcher, tour guide—Queenie spent several years living with a troupe of female artists, and she had an affair with a retired high court judge. Alone and pregnant, she arrived in Kingsbridge hoping for a fresh start. She hadn’t planned on becoming embroiled personally and professionally with another married man.
Encouraged by one of the hospice volunteers, Queenie decides to write an extended deathbed letter to Harold, revealing the details of her past and her encounters with his hostile wife and wayward son. While reading, I could easily envision her trembling hands as she penned her story, all the while, determined to release decades of painful secrets. But Queenie’s inner voice is calm and sure: “My life has been small, it has been nothing to speak of. But the past is still inside me, Harold. I have never let it go.”
The novel alternates between these touching vignettes and humor-infused descriptions of hospice life. The patients are well-drawn, with their own quirks and set opinions on almost every topic. Surrounded by death’s ever-present shadow, they still manage to find renewed hope in everyday events.
When one of the more outspoken patients asks if anyone else is waiting for Harold Fry, the response is overwhelming: “One by one, and in silence, the patients raised their hands. Sunken faces. Skeletal wrists. Bandages and tubes. Sunlight poured through the windows, and the air shone with dust motes, billowing like silvered snow. The friends and families of the patients began to raise their hands too, and so did the volunteers and the nuns. At last every one in the dayroom had a hand in the air. Tall, small, young, old, fat ones, thin ones, healthy, dying. They looked from one person to the next with a dawning sense of wonder. Something new was happening. It was palpable.”
I recommend reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry before picking up this book. While the events do occur concurrently, it is much easier to fill in the gaps of Harold’s story rather than starting with the intimate details of Queenie’s inner life.
After retiring from a 31-year teaching career, Joanne Guidoccio launched a second act as a writer. Her articles, book reviews and short stories have appeared in newspapers, magazines and online. In September 2013, Soul Mate Publishing released her debut novel, Between Land and Sea. You can visit her website at www.joanneguidoccio.com