If you enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, you must read its companion, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. If you haven't read either, two good novels await you.
Review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Harold Fry, a sad, lonely, 65-year-old recent retiree, is caught in a stale life and a fractured marriage in which “language had no significance.” He receives a good-bye note from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who is in a hospice dying of cancer. He writes a bland reply although he feels his response is inadequate: “The knowledge of his helplessness pressed down on him so heavily he felt weak. It wasn’t enough to send a letter. There must be a way to make a difference.” When walking to mail his letter, he has a chance conversation which has him believing that he can keep Queenie alive by walking to her. Thus begins his trek.
Of course, what Harold actually embarks on is a journey of self-discovery; he asks himself “Who am I?” and even his cellphone message has a long pause as if “he was actually off looking for himself.” As he walks, he reflects on his life; he frees “the past he had spent twenty years seeking to avoid.” What he specifically feels burdened by is not revealed until near the end, but Harold feels that he is walking “to atone for mistakes he had made.”
Among his discoveries are wonderful everyday things: “it was as if everywhere he looked, the fields, gardens, trees, and hedgerows had exploded with growth.” Another epiphany is that he is not alone because there are many people like him just struggling to put one foot in front of the other: “It was the same all over England. . . . And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.”
While her husband is on his quixotic pilgrimage, Maureen waits at home and also does some reflecting. She too examines their marriage: “She sat . . . and stared into the air, seeing not net curtains but only the past.” As she has insights, her transformation is wonderfully developed through the symbolism of net curtains. At the beginning the curtains “hung between herself and the outside world, robbing it of color and texture, and she was glad of that.” Eventually she removes and discards the curtains and “Light, color, and texture fell over the room.”
This novel takes the reader through a whole spectrum of emotions; parts are heartbreakingly sad while others are funny. It encourages us to examine our own lives to find instances of misplaced anger and resentment and to rediscover “all the things in life [we’ve] let go.” Despite its bleakness in sections, the novel is hopeful and uplifting because it suggests it’s okay “to go mad once in a while” and because “Beginnings could happen more than once, or in different ways.”
The book is a meditation on life but it is also a quirky and charming novel. It is not surprising that it was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
Review of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy
This is a companion novel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The narrator is the woman whose note inspires Harold to walk 627 miles to visit his former colleague as she spends her last day in a hospice. As she waits for Harold to arrive, she writes him a letter detailing her life and confessing two secrets. It may be Harold who makes the long journey across Britain, but Queenie too makes a journey: “People think you have to walk to go on a journey. But you don’t, you see. You can lie in bed and make a journey too.”
The novel succeeds in being both comic and poignant. Queenie’s fellow patients in the hospice are a quirky crew; the exchanges between them are often hilarious. One of the patients tells a volunteer, “One of the pluses of chemotherapy . . . is that all her facial and body hair has gone. It’s like a permanent Brazilian for free.” A young naïve nun (who gives haircuts to the patients) doesn’t understand the term so she is told that a Brazilian is “a sort of haircut . . . Quite short.” Later Sister Lucy offers a patient a short haircut: “’If you like, you can have a Brazilian.’”
The poignancy arises because the end is inevitable for these patients. There are repeated references to the undertaker’s van coming up the drive: “He was not there this afternoon. The undertaker’s van - Well, you know the rest.”
As Queenie reminisces, she makes observations about life: “it is harder to argue with another person . . . than it is to argue with the darker recesses of oneself” and “sometimes you cannot clear the past completely. You must live alongside your sorrow.” What she emphasizes over and over again is the importance of stopping and finding happiness in small pleasures. In the past, she realizes that she was blind: “it was such a small, plain thing that I mistook it for something ordinary and failed to see.” As she nears death, she understands that “You don’t get to a place by constantly moving, even if your journey is one of sitting still and waiting. Every once in a while you have to stop in your tracks and admire the view, a small cloud and a tree outside your window. You have to see what you did not see before. And then you have to sleep.” Queenie’s philosophical musings are not original, but they bear repetition.
I loved the allusions to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “we would grow old. You would wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled” and “I have measured out my life in ladies’ shoes.” Queenie even dares to eat a peach. Those who are familiar with T. S. Eliot’s poem will find additional layers of meaning in the book.