'What happened to Queenie?" was one of the most frequent questions that writer Rachel Joyce was asked as she toured around the world promoting her debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which was published in 2012.
Joyce had no idea how to reply to the question, and for a while she had no particular interest in providing an answer either. “I was deep into writing another book at the time,” she says, during a recent visit to Dublin. “I was happy to have left Harold Fry behind me.” However, the more readers mentioned the memorable character of Queenie Hennessy, the more Joyce began to wonder whether the readers’ curiosity was her failure, whether she had left a gap in the story that needed to be filled.
“Harold Fry is a story about journeys and destinations,” she says, “and you could say that the biggest journey of all is the journey Queenie faces, into herself, into death.” Indeed, Joyce soon found herself increasingly distracted from the project she was working on, and eventually gave in to the voice that spoke to her insistently.
“Once I had the idea of seeing things from Queenie’s point of view, it just wouldn’t leave me,” she says. “I wouldn’t say the book just came to me in the writing, but I just found she had so much to say.”
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
, the eponymous protagonist makes for an unlikely hero. Harold is settling into retirement when he receives a letter from an old colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who is dying of cancer in a nursing home 700 miles south of the town where they met 40 years ago. He sets out to post a letter to her, but finds himself walking to the hospice to see her instead. He arrives just as Queenie dies, but he allows himself a deathbed confession, addressing the failures of his life.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy follows the same timeline as Harold Fry, but offers a different perspective on events. The epistolary nature of Joyce's original book is turned on its head, and we read Harold's short reports on his journey through Queenie's eyes. If Queenie's death provided Harold with a cathartic quest for resolution of his own troubles, in the new book Queenie's life and death has its own significance, and it offers the reader a standalone opportunity to hear Queenie's voice.
Joyce says the book might be best described as "a companion piece to Harold Fry, and I like that, because it seems like a fitting description of Queenie and Harold's relationship too".
It is important to Joyce, however, that “you should be able to read either book first, you shouldn’t have to read one to read the other. Still, I like the idea of a reader reading them side by side, and you will notice, if you do, that their psychological journey has echoes; if Harold has a bad day, Queenie’s day will mirror that.”
The process of writing The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy was "really exciting", Joyce says, "like being invited to return to rooms you have been in before, opening cupboards you weren't allowed to the last time". However, it also reawakened painful memories that Joyce thought she had put to bed when Harold Fry was completed.
Joyce first had the idea for that book when her father was dying with cancer, the same unusual and disfiguring cancer that leads Queenie to hide herself away from the world in a remote hospice. The novel actually began as a radio play, a medium that Joyce, a former actor, fell into when performing in a radio drama at the BBC. “I was talking to the producer about this story that I heard, which I thought would make a really good radio play. He said: ‘Why don’t you write it yourself?’ ”
Joyce had actually been writing already for years, “prose mostly, for as long as I could remember, but I had no real confidence in what I was doing. It was that typical thing where I was starting lots of different books and abandoning them. Of course, that’s the thing about writing. It is something you do every day and nobody notices until you have a success”.
Joyce’s father died before the play was produced, but the character of Harold still haunted her after his passing, and she decided to pursue his story in novel form; it was a way of dealing with her grief and channelling her memories of her father. However, turning personal experience into fiction was hard.
“Some people objected to the way I portrayed Queenie’s cancer, for example,” she says. “They didn’t want her to be so disfigured, they thought it was too brutal – but that was what my father experienced. He had these huge facial swellings and he lost his confidence, wouldn’t go out, in the end couldn’t speak, and it was terrible to watch, because he was a very sociable man, but he didn’t want to be seen like that. He didn’t want people’s pity.”
Returning to that world for a second time was more painful than Joyce expected, too. “I thought I had gotten over it,” she says. Instead, she was forced to deal with some of her own feelings about illness and death. For example, where Queenie seeks refuge in a hospice, albeit reluctantly, Joyce’s father refused to be admitted into hospice care.
“He was terrified of dying anywhere but home, and I had taken that fear on as well, but when I started visiting hospices for my research, it was a real education,” she says. “I found that they were places that were full of laughter and life as well as sadness, and that really informed the direction of the book, that it would be life-affirming and full of fun, when it might have gone in the other direction.”
New readers will be surprised that a book about dying is so full of humour, but fans of Harold Fry will not. The reception of the book, which included a place on the Booker longlist, took Joyce by surprise.
“This was a book about suicide, marriage breakdown, cancer, death,” she says, “and people were saying it was sweet. But that’s the thing about the books you write, you don’t know what they are until people shine them back upon you.”
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is published by Penguin