I do like the holidays as much as most people – time off from work and an excuse to indulge – what's not to like? But I've never felt compelled to read something on theme whether that be something spooky around Halloween or jolly around Christmas. The only exceptions have been David Sedaris' fantastically irreverent “Santaland Diaries” or, as they are also known, “Holidays on Ice.” If I'm feeling in a particularly sentimental mood there is also Truman Capote's deeply-moving story 'A Christmas Memory.' So I had no plan to seek out holiday reading this year, but then I came upon Rachel Joyce's new book of short stories “A Snow Garden.” I love the understated beauty and quiet wisdom of her writing, especially in her novel “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.” That same power is carried through into these short stories which are all focused around the Christmas season, but these aren't syrupy tales of holiday cheer. Many of these stories focus on people on the margins like an irascible woman who feels isolated, a father with a history of mental illness trying to make things right with his sons, an older couple whose marriage is splintering apart or a girl's first tentative steps towards becoming social by attending a dance. These stories are very much about redemption and hope, but in a realistic and hard-won sense that won't leave you with a toothache.

Most of the stories are loosely connected to each other or with Joyce's past books. Mention of a flight delay in one story is carried through into another story focused on people stuck at an airport. An unused winter-themed film set for a pop star's holiday special becomes the focal point in another story where a father is trying to rekindle a connection with his sons. I greatly enjoy short story collections which are lightly related to each other because it gives a more fully rounded sense of a fictional world and gives little pleasure triggers when I'm able to join things up. Connections with Joyce's past books are gently done so I don't think a reader will feel left out by not recognizing characters which they've met before. It simply functions like an added bonus for a Rachel Joyce fan who is in the know. One enduring thing which recurs throughout this book is an advert with an image of a girl in a red coat who is in a snowy winter scene. This feels so effective because it seems so true to life: a sentimental image created for commercial purposes which nonetheless effects the mood of the characters who continuously encounter it.

Although these stories are firmly grounded in reality, I like how sometimes Joyce's writing starts stretching the seams. So, when in her touching story 'A Marriage Manual' the couple who have been together their whole lives reach a near breaking point when collaborating on a bicycle's construction, the very construction of the garage around them begins floundering and breaking apart. The only point where I don't feel this works is in her story 'Christmas Day at the Airport' which is a modern-day retelling of the nativity story replete with a lesbian who gives birth, women who bear fragrant gifts from Duty Free and a donkey being held in the animal redemption centre. The concept of this story took over making it feel too manufactured. However, I found every other story in this book to be genuinely moving.

Rachel Joyce has a talent for creating really vivid and intensely-felt characters like a difficult woman named Binny in 'A Faraway Smell of Lemon' and a vibrant rebellious adolescent girl named Patty Driscoll in 'The Boxing Day Ball'. Each line of dialogue builds their personalities to make them feel immediate and real. She doesn't shrink from showing the awkward pauses or repetition of speech which hint at the underlying emotions of her characters. In their normal exchanges and the mundane detail, Joyce reveals hints of profundity in the everyday. In this way she remind me very much of Anne Tyler's fiction. So I really enjoyed reading this book over the Christmas season. Rachel Joyce has another novel forthcoming this year and I'm greatly looking forward to it.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Joyce
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Sometimes it feels like most of life is spent imagining parallel lives in the mind. Whether it’s a brief glimpse of someone you admire and want to be or a longstanding passion for someone or something beyond your reach, there are always alternative choices to contemplate and brood upon. Queenie is a woman late in life suffering from a terminal cancer that has left her disfigured with part of her jaw missing. She is, as she puts it, quite literally “words without a mouth.” She lives in a hospice sifting through memories, remembering Harold, the great love of her life who never even knew she loved him, and waiting for the inevitable. After sending him a short letter informing him of how little time she has left, postcards begin arriving from Harold who tells her to wait for him as he’s walking across all of England to come to see her again. This provokes her to write back to him pages and pages with the assistance of one of the caring attendant nuns. Slowly the past between them is uncovered along with the complicated relationship Queenie had with Harold’s son David. This is not a soft tale of love lost, but a story of raw powerful emotion that realistically captures the things that are most joyful and excruciating about life.  

Author Rachel Joyce has described this novel as a “companion” to her debut novel “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” I loved this first novel which contained a meditative journey following Harold across England to visit Queenie, but it’s been a couple of years since I read it so the story hovers dimly at the back of my head. However, it was both fascinating and touching to revisit this story from another character’s perspective with certain scenes from the first book being told from a different angle. But this novel stands alone for the sheer power of the hospice scenes portrayed and which are totally separate from Harold’s story. Queenie spends time in the gardens and recreational room of the hospice with an idiosyncratic group of residents all suffering from different terminal illnesses and the caring distinctive nuns who attend to their welfare. These characters are vibrantly drawn with the tragic/comic drama of their circumstances forming some brilliant scenes.

This novel also contains one of the most powerful portrayals of a wayward, difficult child that I can remember reading. David is an eccentric teenager who rebels against mainstream culture and strikes up a strange friendship with Queenie. Since it exists secretly and outside standard social practices, their friendship isn’t subject to normal rules. It’s in some ways an abusive co-dependency where David uses Queenie for money and recognition outside of his parents’ realm and Queenie uses David as a touchstone to Harold, the man she loves and cannot be with. All the angst and pain of adolescence is sharply drawn as David describes his ambivalent feelings towards his parents: “I look at them, Q. And it’s like I don’t belong.” As much as you can feel David’s anguish in his dialogue and erratic behaviour, it is equally intensely felt when Queenie enquires about David’s welfare from Harold. She gets nothing more than muted bland assurances which contain a subtext of tightly contained despair and heartbreak. This parent-child dynamic is realistic and meaningfully played out.

Rachel Joyce has a talented ability for forming vivid descriptions and representing the wavering net of consciousness. At one point when describing the recollection of moments of high emotional tension for Queenie she writes “Everything that happens is caught in aspic in my mind.” What a poignant way of describing memories as if they are locked in a jelly so that they can be seen, but in a way that is slightly distorted and loosely held! At other times she has a sharp informed comedic sense. One of my favourite lines is an aside which states “It’s a shame short men don’t wear heels; it would save the world a lot of trouble.” This is a fantastic slam to all the Napoleons of the world. At another point, referencing T.S. Eliot and describing Queenie’s fondness for purchasing shoes she writes “I have measured out my life in ladies’ shoes.” This is funny but it’s also truly an apt point to play off from as it alludes to Eliot’s poetic examination of a life played out in the mind that alights upon the physical details that fill up existence. Indeed, the title of this book plays off from Eliot’s own title. In this novel those physical obects - whether they be a shoe or suitcase or a Murano glass clown – are represented in drawings which are interspersed throughout the text. This adds a visual aspect to the writing bringing Queenie’s life into sharper focus.

“O Solitude” by Purcell – The song Queenie would like played at her funeral

Queenie herself writes poetry about Harold which she never shows him. However, in an act of horrific betrayal her simple love poems are thrown back in her face and she’s made to feel mocked. There is so much wisdom in this novel about the mechanics of love and how it manifests itself through faulty acts and expressions. It’s observed that “Sometimes you can love something not because you instinctively connect with it but because another person does, and keeping their things in your heart takes you back to them.” This eloquently describes the way we hold certain songs or films or objects dear to us because it connects us with someone we love who was passionate about it. However, as we develop tastes for certain things or bits of culture we’re also building upon our own identities by assimilating, changing and adapting. Queenie is someone who decided early on that there were limitations which meant she could never fully realize the love she feels for Harold. Rather than forming itself in words she lived reclusively in a beach house where she created a garden that represented her life and passions. Yet, her story continues beyond this static existence in a way that is unpredictable. It’s touchingly stated that: “The way forward is not forward, but off to one side, in a place you have not noticed before.”

For all the genuine heartbreak and tragedy of “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy,” this novel is imbued with a tremendous sense of humour which adds a graceful note to the lives it portrays. In Joyce’s first novel Queenie may have come across as simply a muted tragic figure from a man’s past, but, as is observed in this novel “people are rarely the straightforward thing we think they are.” As all of Queenie’s secrets and confessions come bursting out it feels as if this life lived mostly in her mind is more colourfully alive than many lived out in more dramatic circumstances. We learn that Queenie’s life is indeed anything but as she describes it: “small, it has been nothing to speak of.” This novel makes you feel the raw power of the imagination that forms an undercurrent to life which is more forceful and real than anything that can be seen on the surface.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Joyce