Queenie is dying of throat cancer. This is her ‘story’ that parallels the author’s novel “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.”
Queenie sends Harold a postcard and he in turn, rather than answering by writing, is coming to visit Queenie at her hospice care center. She decides to write a letter for Harold to read in case she dies before Harold actually arrives. Queenie needs his forgiveness for past actions toward his son David. For twenty years Queenie has lived with her guilt and opening up her past is a painful journey for her. One of the lessons that this book attempts to teach is learning that all of our life has value, even the sorrowful and the ‘bad’ parts.
The sad thing is that Queenie’s guilt was so unnecessary. But this is something that the reader can identify with, since we are often similarily flawed and tend to put ourselves through the same type of regrets that Queenie lives with. Queenie’s guilt is not easy to reconcile though, especially as she has allowed Harold’s son to rob her both financially and emotionally. David’s character was hard to empathise with as he is both selfish and irresponsible, but I also had to wonder why Harold continually enabled his son in his alcohol addiction, so furtively getting rid of the beer cans/bottles. But isn’t that also typical of the choices that are often made in real life; enabling those they love in their addictions, for whatever reason?
I read this book so fast, and enjoyed it. A few of the chapters seemed to be stuck in there just to add to the length of the book. There were a couple of chapters that didn’t seem necessary at all to the story. I had to wonder why the author had included them, as they seemed written just to manipulate the reader to a ‘politically-diversity-correct’ viewpoint and had nothing to do with either Queenie’s life or Harold’s. However, much of the book was very good and thought provoking. Death is a central issue in this novel and resolving past mistakes and choices becomes a major challenge for Queenie.
I loved reading about the sea garden Queenie creates to sublimate her disappointed love affair. I really appreciated the final analysis Queenie comes to, that Harold ultimately belongs to his family, and she was ok with that. The characters, especially those in hospice care, ring true and made me wonder if the author actually visited a home and interviewed the patients or whether they were they drawn from real life. Similarily, her depictions of life with a debilitating illness are also well-drawn and genuine.
“Look at the window, Queenie. What do you see?”
I wrote, clouds. I put, gray ones. I added, This is England. What do you expect?
She laughed. “But you also see sky.”
“The sky and the sun are always there. It’s the clouds that come and go. Stop holding on to yourself, and look at the world around you.”
I made a grunt. I was still feeling put out.
“You’re upset. You’re frightened. So what can you do? You can’t run anymore. Those days are over. You can’t make the problem beautiful by dancing. You can’t even prune it. Those days are over too. So the only thing left for you to do now is to stop trying to fix the problem.”
This novel does provoke some questions. Why, for instance, does a woman like Queenie, who has a degree in the Classics from Oxford, choose to remain with a simple clerical/accounting job at a brewery? why does she settle for a romance that she knows has no chance of ever progressing to commitment? and yet, the questions we ask as we read are secondary to the writing itself. One can just read this book for enjoyment and ignore the obvious, or one can discover a life lesson as they read; it’s really the choice the reader is allowed to discover on their own.