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.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

On My "To Read" Table

Last Saturday I finally got to head to Dymocks in the city to spend my Christmas voucher. What a long time it's been sitting there, waiting, burning a hole in my wallet. Luckily my Clunes friend, who seems to have read most of the books in the world, was on hand to occasionally pull a face or shake his head and very cautiously advise against something I'd picked up to consider buying. He did this with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. 'Nah, you wouldn't like it,' he said, and after a brief verbal review, I believed him.

He did try to talk me into This Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, saying it was the most profoundly moving thing he'd ever read but I've heard others say it's slit-your-wrists territory and will give you nightmares for years, so I erred on the side of caution and left it on the shelf, for the time being at least.

So what did I end up with?

  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
  • The Green Road by Anne Enright and 
  • My Brilliant Friend the first of those Ellena Ferrante books that seem to have divided many people into love it/hate it camps.
So, plenty to go on with. Winter coming, open fires to light and any number of 4-legged friends to share the couch.

tow dogs sleeping on a couch
Not much room for me....