Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Rachel Joyce’

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce’s latest book, Miss Benson’s Beetle left me feeling happy with the world.

The story tells of Miss Margery Benson’s trip to New Caledonia from England in 1950 to find a previously unknown golden beetle, something she had dreamed of doing her whole life.

Margery was a middle-aged home economics teacher at a girl’s school when one day, driven to despair by her miserable life in post-war England and by her horrible students, she stole her deputy principal’s new boots and quit her job, deciding almost on the spur of the moment to travel to a remote mountain region in New Caledonia.

Margery advertised for an assistant who could speak French, take notes and generally assist her in her travels but at the last minute employed Enid Pretty after she was let down by her first preference. Enid was a flirtatious and unlikely young woman who was incapable of many of the tasks Margery wanted in an assistant, but who was kinder-hearted than Margery at least initially deserved, tending to an extremely sea-sick Margery throughout most of the journey to Australia. However, when they arrived in Brisbane Enid told Margery she wouldn’t be continuing with her to New Caledonia, as she was desperate for a baby and intended to make a life with a man she had met on the ship.

When Enid realised the man she planned to marry was a cruel, unpleasant bully, she escaped him at the last minute and hopped on the sea plane to New Caledonia with Margery.

Once in New Caledonia Margery and Enid found themselves enmeshed into a social whirl of British expatriates who didn’t seem to appreciate living in paradise, and caught up in bureacracy, unable to obtain the visa they required to travel to the mountain until Enid eventually found a way to get Margery to the mountain.

I liked watching Margery and Enid learn and grow from each other. Their backstories were told gradually and added enormously to my appreciation of their characters. I particularly enjoyed reading about their sea voyage to Australia.

I would describe Miss Benson’s Beetle as an adventurous comfort read.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce


I listened to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as I wrote my review of The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce.

You can probably already tell that this is a book with a playlist.

The Music Shop is set during the 1980’s. The main character, Frank, is a shaggy, shambling, good hearted fellow who has no intention of becoming romantically involved with anyone. He owns a record shop in a run-down street and refuses to sell CDs, to the detriment of his business. When a German-accented woman faints outside his shop, Frank rushes to assist her and falls instantly in love with her, although he will not admit it, not even to himself.

Ilse, the woman who fainted, also seems to be drawn to Frank, his shop and the community of misfits who surround them. Frank has a knack of finding the right music for his customer’s needs, but Ilse insists she doesn’t listen to music. Frank is astounded, even more so when she asks Frank to teach her about music. He starts with Beethoven.

‘The “Moonlight” Sonata is by Beethoven. Do you, uh, know Beethoven?’

‘Aren’t they a rock band?’

I loved reading Frank’s stories as he taught Ilse about music. As an example, apparently the Moonlight Sonata was not named by Beethoven and the music had nothing to do with moonlight. According to Frank, Beethoven wrote the piece for a beautiful woman he was in love with, however she was young enough to be his daughter and engaged to another man. Listening to the Moonlight Sonata was a different experience after learning the story of it.

I’ve previously read and enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by this author, so was predisposed to like The Music Shop.

Before I finished writing this review I watched a flash mob* sing the Hallelujah Chorus in the food court of a shopping mall. It brought me to tears, just as a similar scene in the story did.

*I was lucky enough to see a flash mob at Flinder’s Street Station in Melbourne on my way to work earlier this year. A group of men came together, seemingly randomly to sang the Beach Boy’s Sloop John B, then disappeared into the crowd. It made my day.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce


It is said there are two sides to every story, and in The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce, which is a companion piece to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by the same author, Queenie gets to tell her side of the story.

In The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Harold Fry receives a letter from his old workmate Queenie Hennessy, who tells him she is dying. Harold writes her a letter in return and walks to the post box to post it, but instead of posting it, continues to walk to Queenie, who is in a hospice on the other side of the country. Along the way Harold reflects on his life, his relationships with his wife and son, and on his friendship with Queenie.

In The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Queenie writes her story, or song, with the help of a nun at the hospice. Queenie’s story moves back and forwards between her past, when she worked with and fell in love with Harold Fry in a brewery, and her present, of day to day events involving the other patients at the hospice, who have become Queenie’s friends.

During their time at the brewery, Queenie was an accountant and Harold a sales rep. They were thrown into each others company as they drove around the countryside auditing pubs. Harold was married, more or less happily and had no idea of Queenie’s feelings for him.

Unbeknownst to Harold, Queenie also knew Harold’s son David, first as a problem teenager then as a troubled adult. In a misguided attempt to help David and ingratiate herself with Harold, Queenie gave David money, allowed him to steal from her and take advantage of her in a number of ways which enabled him to live a selfish and unhappy life. When David suicided, Harold did something at the brewery which would have got him the sack, except that Queenie took the blame for Harold then left town, without ever telling Harold she knew his son.

As Harold walks to her, Queenie, with the help of the nun, writes her confession for Harold to read when he arrives.

The other characters at the hospice were the highlight of this book for me. Some were grumpy, others flirty or silly and most were annoying, but I actually cried several times, when the dignity and courage of the dying characters was highlighted. When the patients agreed that none of them would die until Harold arrived, I went to pieces.

Anyone who enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will enjoy and take something from The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. I think the books could be read in either order too, as they stand alone. I found this to be a very satisfying read.





The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is another contender for my favourite novel of this year.

Harold Fry is a recently retired English man in his 60s, who, one morning at breakfast, receives a letter from a work mate he hasn’t seen in twenty years. The letter is from Queenie Hennessy, who wrote to tell Harold she is dying.

After a struggle to find the right words, Harold writes back to Queenie, then lets his wife Maureen know that he is going out to post the letter.

Walking to the letter box, Harold is overcome by the inadequacy of the words in his letter to Queenie, so he decides to walk to the next letterbox to post his letter in an attempt to give more of himself to Queenie, and from the next letterbox he decides to continue to the town’s Post Office.  As Harold walks he remembers Queenie and their friendship, all the while telling the story of the community he lives in as he walks past local landmarks, (the good butcher, the bad butcher who makes his wife unhappy, the neighbours, and so on).

When Harold stops at a garage to get something to eat, he tells the girl behind the counter that he is on his way to post a letter to a friend who is dying. In response, the girl tells Harold the story of her own aunt, who also had cancer. She tells Harold that if a person has faith, they can do anything, words which Harold mulls over as he continues his walk. Inspired, he phones the Hospice where Queenie is being cared for and leaves a message for her to say he is going to save her, that she is to continue living, because he is going to walk to her. Harold also phones Maureen to tell her of his plan to continue on to Queenie’s hospice.

Maureen is sceptical and non-supportive of Harold’s plan, although she has no control over his decision.

As he walks, Harold reflects on his unhappy marriage to Maureen, his poor relationship with his son, David, on his childhood, his working life and of course, his friendship with Queenie. Harold is a good man, but over the years, he and Maureen have been divided, rather than unified by their troubles.

Harold continues to phone Maureen at regular intervals to tell her of his travels. She misses him at home and also spends the time away from Harold reflecting on where they went wrong in the marriage.

The descriptions of the places Harold walked through give me the urge to put on a pair of yachting shoes, dump all of my possessions and go for a longish walk of my own. His pilgrimage starts in his home town of Kingsbridge, in the south of England and Queenie’s hospice is in Berwick, the most northern town in England. If you are imagining a map of England, Harold’s walk starts at the bottom left of the country and finishes at the top right, near Scotland.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an emotional journey for Harold, as well as a physical journey. The story is also an emotional one for the people he meets on his way to Berwick, most of whom are touched by his story. The ending is predictable, but still enjoyable.

I’m looking forward to reading The Love Story of Miss Queenie Hennessy, which sounds like a companion piece to Harold’s story.





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