Top critical review
A flawed but deeply humane book
11 November 2014
It is always a pleasure to read a book by Rachel Joyce. The people who inhabit her books are so normal; you can meet them in ordinary life. Or what is more likely: you overlook them. Or we don't realise we ourselves are much like them. How often aren't we running after a picture of a desirable way of living, of a desirable way of being: successful, happy-go-lucky, and beautiful? Rachel Joyce shows us that nobody is like that, and the world is the better for it. Instead of the botoxed outside, she shows the bumpy inside.
And yet I liked this book less than her other two books. Joyce is a master in evoking emotionally laden images of actions that make you guess at the emotions and feelings behind those actions. There is an image in `An unlikely pelgrimage' that has stayed with me. It's about Maureen. I didn't particularly like Maureen. But in one image Joyce draws her in all her vulnerability. In an effort to be closer to Harold, Maureen reunites her and his clothes by draping the sleeve of his jacket over one of her dresses. That action says all there is to say about Maureen.
In this book we are mainly in the head of Queenie. It was an attractive head to be in. She is such a gentle person. But the writing is very descriptive; we aren't shown Queenie's love, we are told. Queenie tells in her letters about her love for Harold. We read about the effect Harold has on Queenie: she trembles, she loves his socks, she can write poetry about his driving gloves, she feels completely safe with him. She lives in her love for him. He is her life. That excessive trust and love makes it troublesome; the story lacks conflict. Harold has no flaws; she doesn't question her excessive love for him. It would have made a difference if we had known why Queene loves Harold without reticence. We get a glimpse of the lacklustre relationships she had, but not more than glimpses. I know she loves Harold, because she says is all the time but I don't entirely know why she loves him.
Her relationship with David doesn't change that. Because her dealing with him is in actuality her dealing with Harold: boundless love. That said: David was a gripping person to read about.
The friendship between Harold and Queenie didn't deepen my image of Harold. That says a lot I think. He stayed that nice, dependable and noble man. Maureen's screen time is much shorter but so much more poignant. In a beautiful scene of hanging the laundry Joyce draws her as a vulnerable woman who is crazy with grief.
On a positive note: I thought the scenes in the hospice were marvellous, insightful and very humorous. If there were more nuns like that, the Roman Catholic Church didn't have to do so much damage control. They were lovely. And I loved Finty and her hats.