A couple of years ago I read and enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the story of a man who when hearing that a former work colleague was dying in a hospice in the north east of England, decided to walk the whole way to see her. Rachel Joyce says she didn't mean to write another book about Harold, or indeed a book about Queenie Hennessy, but somehow the book came to her fully formed and it had to be done.
Queenie Hennessy is a woman with a past. Whenever there has been a problem, she has simply up sticks and run. And when she is forty, she finds herself in Devon, working at a brewery, and in love with a shabby man who dresses in fawn/beige and is not an exciting man at all. And she can't tell him for fear of hurting him, his wife, his son. When a tragedy strikes Harold Fry's family, Queenie runs again. She takes a train all the way to Newcastle and eventually finds herself living in a beach side wooden bungalow, with a sea garden.... until she finds a lump in her jaw. We meet her just after she has sent the first letter to Harold - the letter that urged him to make his marathon walk in the earlier book. She's now in a hospice, for the lump was serious and now her life is nearing it's end. Harold has answered her letter with a short note - "wait for me", and she is trying to do just that.
But there are things that happened a long time ago in Devon that affected her, Harold, and Harold's son David and she must tell Harold all of this. She cannot be sure she will be alive when Harold eventually arrives...... and in any case the cancer proved so aggressive that she really cannot speak to make herself understood. So when a nun with a typewriter offers to transcribe Queenie's shorthand notes into a letter for Harold, it's the answer to a prayer.
It seems so simple, doesn't it? A dying woman telling another woman about her life. But it is so wonderfully written, with other larger than life characters in the hospice sharing her (and their) last journey. It is a "couldn't put it down book". It is a book that left me smiling with a tear in my eye. I think for anyone who loves a tale well told, and who has not read this or Harold Fry.... the two together would make a wonderful gift. Rachel Joyce has the skill to observe and relate the whims of complex human nature so well, and with seeming little effort. And, dare I say this? this is a better book than Harold Fry, although I loved them both.
Don't read the last page, please, until you get there. And do read Rachel Joyce's letter to you, the reader, when you have finished the book.