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Book Talk: Rachel Joyce's inspiring story set in a hospice

(This January 26 story was corrected to fix name of previous novel in paragraph 2))
/ Source: Reuters

(This January 26 story was corrected to fix name of previous novel in paragraph 2))

By Verity Watkins

LONDON (Reuters) - British novelist Rachel Joyce's new novel "The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy" is a curiously inspiring story set in a hospice.

The two main characters first appeared in Joyce's bestselling novel "The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry", about a man who walks for weeks across England to see an old friend who is dying of cancer, Queenie Hennessy. In the latest novel, their friendship is seen through the eyes of Queenie as she looks back over her life.

It is a moving tale of loneliness, loss and acceptance, and although the setting seems bleak there is an affectionate warmth and humor in the prose.

Queenie has held a torch for Harold, an old work colleague, for more than 40 years, unbeknown to him.

As Harold makes the trek to visit her, Queenie reflects on her former life at her beach house and the beautiful garden she created. And as she explores her memories of her relationship with Harold, and the guilt hidden at its heart concerning his tragic son David, it becomes clear that Queenie has a journey of her own to make.

Joyce, a former Royal Shakespeare Company actress and BBC playwright, spoke to Reuters recently about her latest novel.

Q: What inspired you to explore this difficult setting?

A: Partly having seen my dad’s journey to die, which came from a very frightened place to an acceptance, a serenity.

I drew on what I saw with my Dad.

Q: Although many of the characters die, the novel doesn't seem bleak: it is warm and affectionate.

A: That came directly out of my experience of visiting hospices. There was a lot of laughter, sometimes bare-faced, gallows humor, because there is nothing left to hide from.

Q: When did Queenie's character take shape?

A: After "Harold Fry", people often asked about Queenie -- why had I given her the deformed face due to cancer? I always explained that it was my dad’s cancer, but it bothered me that I defined my dad as ‘a man with cancer’. I’d written Queenie as a woman with a tumor on her face, and that was all she was.

Q: Where did the idea of Queenie’s sea garden come from?

A: I wrote that she lived in a beach house, and invented the sea garden. It intrigued me, and I liked the idea. I then went on holiday to an English fishing village called Craster, and there were gardens right by the sea, rather like I’d described.

Q: Why is dying still such a taboo subject?

A: I really regret that my dad and I couldn’t talk about death. I think it makes our suffering greater by not talking. We’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Q: Why does Queenie carry such unrequited love for Harold?

A: Queenie realizes that what she felt for Harold was not going to be replicated, although she tried. The effect of that love, and the way it ended when she fled, means she’s lived her life with something missing. Conventional life didn’t work for Queenie. But building a beautiful sea garden and expressing herself that way, did work for her.

Q: Harold Fry has been a huge success. Why has an eccentric Englishman had such appeal?

A: I really don’t know. It has sold well in China and Taiwan. People say it has a universal theme; Harold is an everyman, whatever country you’re in you can pass a man walking on a road.

Q: What are you reading currently?

A: I’ve just finished "The Paying Guests" by Sarah Waters, which I loved. When I read a book I get swallowed by it. I kept feeling I’d done something awful, but it was the character in the book.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Susan Fenton)