A book group can expose one to hidden treasures and unforeseen pleasures. Here’s a great example.
Harold, 65, recently retired, lives with longtime wife Maureen in a small English town. One day comes a letter from Queenie, an old co-worker friend whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years. In hospice dying of cancer, she’s saying goodbye.
Harold pens a short reply and goes out to mail it. But something makes him pass mailbox after mailbox. Stopping for a bite at a garage, he tells the girl there about Queenie; she relates how powerful her faith was when her aunt had cancer. This inspires nonreligious Harold* to continue his walk – to the hospice in Berwick, 500 miles distant – suddenly convinced that that will keep Queenie alive.
Thus begins Rachel Joyce’s novel, seemingly light and quirky, quasi-comic even. It’s hard to take seriously at first. But, wow, this becomes a profoundly compelling tale.
Harold and Queenie were never lovers. But they do share a secret; and Harold owes her, more than he even realizes.
When he phones Maureen to announce his plan, she responds matter-of-factly, without demur. This might have seemed weird, except that the two had lived for twenty years in a state of deep freeze, interaction kept minimal. (I could relate, having experienced something similar, for a time, with a girl I lived with.)
The marriage’s black hole had to do with their son, David. Harold hadn’t been the greatest dad, though not the worst by far. Maureen blames him for what went wrong. Iconically remembered is an ancient beach episode wherein Harold dithered about diving to David’s rescue until a lifeguard intervened. Maureen fails to consider that she didn’t dive in either.
They haven’t seen David in decades. Harold doesn’t speak to him. Maureen does; indeed, they have quite normal phone conversations. That normality actually seemed bizarre, in the circumstances; until the more startling truth, revealed near the end, explains all. (I won’t spill it here.)
I recently reviewed another book group selection, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, about a woman not wholly prepared for a big hike, and of course Harold is preposterously unprepared for his, having walked out in “yachting shoes.” Things go downhill fast, and the reader wonders how this can possibly continue. But an angel (in human form) fortuitously appears and gets Harold reasonably fixed up to reboot his pilgrimage (though still in yachting shoes).
The novel grows more broadly comic, yet at the same time rather darker, when Harold’s story becomes a media sensation and he attracts a motley gaggle of fellow “pilgrims” he could do without. He agonizes over extricating himself but is stopped by a sense of responsibility toward them. Eventually, they leave him behind.
And now it gets truly dark. Does Harold reach Queenie? It no longer really matters, with Harold and Maureen both haunted by their fraught memories, their regrets, their demons. Maureen even begins to sense her own responsibility. At one point she actually travels to find Harold, and their strained conversation is heart-breaking. When Harold mildly suggests she join the trek, she cannot stifle her reflexive, acid “I think not.” Enroute home she ruefully chides herself for those words, and her inability to say the things she wishes she could.
But that isn’t the end.
This is such a deeply affecting, human book. Harold and Maureen are neither heroes nor duds, but Everyman and Everywoman. Sometimes life goes smoothly; sometimes not. Sometimes people sink under their troubles, but sometimes they rise up. Harold and Maureen are limited people; but sometimes we can transcend our limits. Sometimes love dies but sometimes rises up again.
I think yes.
*Harold overlooks the girl’s not actually saying her aunt was helped.