Maureen by Rachel Joyce

Following The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2014), the recently released Maureen completes a trilogy of novels about pain, loss, forgiveness, self-discovery, and kindness. [This review contains spoilers for the previous two books.] I love, among other things, that these books explore self-knowledge later in life, that it’s not just the young people who grow and find themselves.

This is a slim novel, just beyond novella length. The events of Pilgrimage and Love Song are past – that is, Queenie’s illness and death, and Harold’s surprising (to everyone including himself) walk across England to visit her at the end of her life. Harold and his wife Maureen are living quietly again. He found some peace on his walk, but Maureen not so much. The absence of their son David, whose suicide at age 20 is now fully thirty years past, is still a daily haunting for her. (We don’t get access to Harold’s interior here; this story is told in close third person in Maureen’s perspective. In her eyes, however, he lives a simple, happy life, playing drafts with neighbor Rex and birdwatching.) It has come to Maureen’s attention, via a postcard from Kate (Harold’s friend from his walk), that Queenie had a garden, that her garden was famous, and that she had a monument to David in it. This information has bothered Maureen enough that Harold has finally told her to just go on and make the trip. Maureen opens with her hitting the road – she will drive, not walk, thank you – while fretting about Harold’s ability to use the dishwasher or find a mug.

This is therefore Maureen’s own version of Harold’s big journey. Hers is shorter but in some ways she’s less well-equipped, being a less intrinsically nice person. Not to say she’s entirely unlikeable; our access to her interior means we can appreciate how difficult all of this is for her, and her own painful knowledge that she’s doing the wrong thing (the not-nice thing, frequently) even as she’s doing it. She’s a prickly person, but she feels a lot of pain, and knowing this goes a long way.

I won’t give away too much about Maureen’s travels. It’s a hard time. She’s not great at asking for help, and she does run into some difficulties. (Rex, offscreen, remains deeply loveable. Is there a Rex book??!) But she makes efforts, and they are terribly rewarding for her readers and rather for her, too. In the end, I think we see that she gains from the experience.

The Harold trilogy (if you will) are quiet, British stories, about older people suffering life’s small and large injustices, troubles and traumas. Even Maureen, easily the most challenging of the three, tugs hard at my feelings. These are very feeling books.

Rating: 8 sandwiches.

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