I don’t know if it is my age but I am not ashamed to say that I was shedding the odd tear at certain points while I was reading this book. I read Harold Fry and enjoyed it very much but it didn’t move me nearly as much as the story of the woman Harold walked so far to see – although both books share the same uplifting feeling (despite the waterworks….)
This is not a sequel or even a prequel to Harold Fry. I would describe it more as a companion piece, sitting quietly alongside the earlier story, offering support and clarification where needed, but not imposing. Which is pretty much the role Queenie took in the part of her life which directly involved Harold so I am quite pleased with that analogy! We see so much more of Queenie, however, than just her relationship with Harold. We get glimpses of her childhood, her education (a first in classics) and her life before moving to Kingsbridge (surprisingly racy – hanging out with artists and taking lovers) as well as after (a lonely beach house in Northumberland with a strangely beautiful garden). Queenie is a beautifully drawn character – so complex and so real. I think you can understand, by the end, why Harold walks over 600 miles to see her again. I think some of the tears I shed were in sorrow that I never got to meet such a remarkable, yet unobtrusive, woman.
Most of them, however, were for the situation Queenie finds herself in towards the end of her life. The situation which led her to send that first, life-changing letter to Harold and to her taking up residence in St Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Her illness is touched upon but not in detail – in her original letter she says ‘Last year I had an operation on a tumour, but the cancer has spread and there is nothing to be done’ and I feel that sums up her stoicism. The real beauty of the book, for me, is the description of her days in the hospice and the people she meets there. We don’t get happy endings – this is a hospice after all – but we get to SEE the men and women who have gone there to die. The old are too often invisible in today’s youth-obssessed society – the old and the terminally ill can seem like an embarrassment – so it is just wonderful to have the honour of meeting not only Queenie but Mr Henderson, the Pearly King, Barbara and Finty. It is quite humbling to remember that every person in every hospice up and down the country has a story to tell if only we could hear them.
In the end I think that this book is very life-affirming. Although we witness so much illness, death and grief it is the lives which shine through – and any story which contains so much energy, character and warmth cannot help but make you smile through the occasional tear or two.