The problem with prequels is how to tell a satisfying story when the ending is already a foregone conclusion. The Love Song Of Miss Queenie Hennessy is technically a parallel tale to Rachel Joyce’s debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, but it faces the same problem. Her 2012 work ends with Harold Fry arriving at the nursing home where his old friend and love-that-never-was lies dying of cancer, but by following how Queenie comes to that end, Joyce managed to successfully layer new levels of emotional complexity onto Harold’s journey.
The Love Song Of Miss Queenie Hennessy drifts between Queenie’s present day in a nursing home run by kindly nuns, and remembrances of her life before, after, and with Harold Fry. A 40-year-old Oxford-educated woman running from a bad relationship, she meets the gentle Harold while working as a brewery’s accountant and falls in love with him at first sight. But Harold is married, and Queenie tells herself she is happy to enjoy her time with him as little more than a work acquaintance, eschewing more conventional relationships, including a marriage proposal, for quiet pining.
As readers of The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry know, that status quo doesn’t last. When Harold’s son, David, commits suicide, Harold’s grief leads him to destroy his violent boss’ most prized possessions. Queenie takes the fall, fleeing town without saying goodbye—only reaching out to Harold 20 years later when putting her affairs in order. It’s a sad story, and Joyce tries with moderate success to keep Queenie from being an object of pity by adding depth to the humble character we see only through Harold’s eyes in the first book. She brings with her a mix of pragmatism and whimsy, wearing plain suits by day but secretly traveling out of town to ballroom dance with strange men by night. When she flees Harold, she sets up a beachside garden that becomes a wonder to the local community, and she makes friends with everyone who wanders by before illness forces her into isolation. Even in the nursing home she finds friends who join her in waiting for Harold as he walks across England to pay her a visit.
But knowing more about her just makes it more tragic that Queenie and Harold have suffered so long apart, especially since Harold gets to return from his pilgrimage a wiser man but this is truly the end of Queenie’s journey. Much of the book is devoted to the challenges of coming to terms with death as Queenie writes a final letter confessing her love and perceived sins to Harold and only then is able to consider things like funeral preparations and what will happen to her beloved garden. Queenie is a student of the classics, and her writing is filled with literary references including the T.S. Eliot poem about regret and mortality the book’s title borrows its name from.
Joyce throws a few too many clichés into her nursing home, like a gay couple who gets married there the day before the ill partner dies, and an old woman who peacefully dies after the nuns give her the one last Christmas she longed to see even though it’s spring. Still, her cast of seniors—who find new joy in their last days through following Harold’s walk—provide the same sort of sweetness and comic relief that the people Harold encountered along the way did in The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry.
Both stories share the same structure, dancing around their emotional zenith for much of the story before they can really reveal why Harold feels he has to walk and Queenie feels she had to flee. David’s sad story, which was the most compelling part of The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, gets fleshed out significantly here through a complicated friendship with Queenie that Harold never knew about. The two of them feed off each other’s insecurities and needs, producing a heart-wrenching look at devastation caused by fear and lies.
Joyce must tread a delicate path to add to her first book’s narrative without actually touching it in a way that would change the story, but she manages to both add depth to an already strong work and build something new and beautiful upon it.