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A tale must be told

13 February 2015

Madeleine Davies is moved by the follow-up to a bestseller

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy
Rachel Joyce
Doubleday £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT388 )

RACHEL JOYCE's first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, published in 2012, was an international bestseller. The tale of a retired salesman who walks the 627 miles from his home in Devon to a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed where a colleague is dying, it started life as a radio play. Joyce dedicated it to her father, who was dying from cancer of the head and neck.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is not a sequel or a prequel, she explains in a footnote, but a "companion". It is the story of the dying colleague, as dictated to Sister Mary Inconnue, a hospice nun who advises that "You can lie in bed and make a journey too."

While she waits for Harold, Queenie writes her confessions to him, gradually revealing why she left their workplace overnight, and how she has spent the intervening two decades attempting to do penance for the wrong she believes she has done him.

In the best sense, Love Song is a tear-jerker, and unashamedly sentimental. Some of the scenes in the hospice are almost unbearably poignant. Joyce visited two when researching the book, and, while there are comic moments, she does not shy away from terror experienced in the face of death, or the indignities of illness. She has written a wonderful tribute to the work of those in the palliative-care movement: the ingenuity of nuns and nurses who find ways to enable the dying to live. The scene in which Sister Mary Inconnue teaches Queenie how to enjoy a peach is beautifully rendered.

It is also a reminder of the truth voiced by C. S. Lewis that "there are no ordinary people." On the outside, Queenie is a quiet, solitary woman, reminiscent of Eleanor Rigby. But her confessions reveal a turbulent, passionate heart, throbbing away inside, until it finds an outlet on the page, in her dying days.

Joyce's father never lived to hear her tribute to him. But the message of her stories is that it is the telling that matters.

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