Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Charming, Challenging, Moving

Those three words in the title describe two books I recently read. Rachel Joyce started an amazing storyline in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In it she tells of Harold who received a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, that informs him she is dying and in hospice care. He decides to walk the length of England to see her and, in so doing, help her to live longer. As any regulars here know, I am a sucker for the idea of "pilgrimage," so I jumper right on it when a friend highly recommended I read it.

He was right. It is quite a commentary on all kinds of things of every day life- work, relationships, renewal, retirement, hope, dying, fame in 380+ pages. There were a number of places where Joyce could have taken an easier, more Hollywood-type approach, but she didn't. She kept the story moving at a pace that matched Harold's journey and his wife's musings. We hear much about Harold's past and see how his becoming mindful of his journey changes just about everything.

I loved the flow of the book and the way the characters kept interacting through Joyce's narrative. It's kind of like life- which I know is a pilgrimage of daily discovery. It was a bestseller and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The second book is Joyce's parallel story of Queenie Hennessy as she relates her story while Harold is making his pilgrimage, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. It is a deeper telling of the events from Harold's life from a person involved in them in ways Harold never knew. Queenie starts writing this letter after she informs Harold of her terminal illness. She describes life in the hospice, how they respond to Harold's pilgrimage and their own mortality that you can never escape in a hospice. In the midst of that Queenie also tells her back story of her time working with Harold and the 20-years since she last saw him.

Harold's pilgrimage is a physical one, transforming his inner life and world-view. Queenie's is internal, remembering and reacting, finding new ways of bringing life to a closure. Her's is truly a love song about finding and losing love while internalizing it, building it in different ways, and finally giving it a voice.

Since we already know one side of most of the events Queenie relates, it is intriguing to put the two together for a larger and more profound picture. It reminded me that we don't often know either how much impact we have on others, or how they are interacting with our lives. While that sounds trite and cliched, Joyce is an accomplished storyteller who keeps us wondering, "What next?" even as we know the end.

That is what this pilgrimage of life is like, though. We all know the end. It is the ultimate equality And yet, it is how we walk that pilgrimage, how we respond to our events that makes each life unique. Hope, transformation, grace- they are all just around the corner at each moment.

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