In Rachel Joyce's first novel, a man named Harold Fry sets out to mail a letter to his dying friend Queenie and ends up, instead, walking the length of England to deliver it by hand. Harold is in a dark place — his marriage to Maureen is unraveling; David, their only child, has died by suicide, and Harold is steeped in guilt about his treatment of Queenie many years before.
The 600-mile walk is hard on his body but proves good for his soul.
"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" was an international bestseller and longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize. At the time, Joyce said that she would not write a sequel, but it soon became clear that these characters had more to say. A 2014 companion novel, "The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy," told the story through the eyes of Queenie, waiting in the north, holding off death until Harold's arrival.
And now it is Maureen's turn.
During most of Harold's walk, Maureen was at home, compulsively scrubbing their sparkling-clean house, fretting, worrying about Harold, mourning their son, feeling jealous of Queenie. She was a mess, and no wonder.
Now it is 10 years later, but she is doing no better. She's still prickly, still furious with the world, still stuck in grief and pain. She has learned that Queenie, before she died, had created a garden that contained a monument to David. This news is almost more than she can bear.
"What right had she to do that?" she rages. It becomes all she can think about. Let it go, Harold says, but Maureen cannot let it go because Maureen cannot let anything go. Thoughts of the garden grew inside her "like a splinter you don't attend to." She is filled with "incredible anger that was eating her alive."
And so Harold pushes her, gently, to go see the garden for herself. And this is where the story begins, on a January morning with Maureen headed north on a mission to remove the splinter that is Queenie from her heart. Unlike Harold, she will drive. She just wants to see the garden, find the monument to David, and return home.
This book echoes "Harold Fry" — the journey brings some redemption, some understanding, and some peace. But Maureen being Maureen, she achieves this in the most difficult way possible. Harold was open to change, and Maureen is stubbornly closed. "The whole point of driving was that she wouldn't have to deal with people she didn't know."
And the world is not the same as it was when Harold walked across rolling green countryside and through bucolic villages. "Maureen" is set during the time of Brexit and COVID-19, and "England was a different country. ... The banks were littered with plastic" and discarded masks. "Beyond the fog, she saw nothing but industrial units the size of hangars."
Joyce gets brilliantly right the physical details of the trip — "that low January sky closing down. The spilled red of a winter sun" — as well as Maureen's emotional transformation. It is not sudden, it is not miraculous, it is not complete, but it is entirely believable.
Though she puts her character through hell, Joyce is an empathetic writer, and the story is one of hope and redemption. As Maureen drives away on the first page, "it was too early for birdsong," but you have faith that somewhere along the way the birds will sing for her. And they do.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. email@example.com
By: Rachel Joyce.
Publisher: Dial Press, 192 pages, $17 paperback.