Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

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Recently retired Harold Fry receives a letter with news that his old work colleague, Queenie Hennessy, has cancer and that it is now untreatable. She is in a hospice in Berwick upon Tweed. Harold writes a feeble note, and goes to post it, but he’s not really satisfied with it, so goes to the next post box… and the next. Instead of mailing it, he keeps on walking, from Kingsbridge, Devon to Berwick upon Tweed. A chance encounter with a girl from a filling station sets off a belief that if he walks all the way, he will save her. And so begins his pilgrimage; in only the clothes he walks out in including his trusty pair of yachting shoes. Harold meets people along the way, collecting stories and experiences. The solitude that he finds himself in allows him to look at his own life, his stale marriage and his relationship with his son.

Joyce’s first novel, an expanded radio play, is a real gem. There is an underlying narrative suspense of whether he will succeed, because it seems so unlikely. Harold Fry isn’t instantly likeable; he is rather grey and in the early stages I was uncertain whether I was interested enough in him, or his wife, to see it through. However, there is a simplicity and a rhythm in ‘walking’ with Harold as he begins to face up to himself – and the glimpses of the past that he’s avoided. It is a journey that you take with Harold, and with Maureen – we see her reflections too, as the void left by Harold exposes herself to her past. It reveals a shut-down life, half lived in many ways, especially when you see the people that they’ve somehow become, weighed down in the disappointment in each other. Joyce shows a sad unfolding of a marriage, some 40 years later, rested in a comfortable impasse. I really hoped that they could find some way back, and in that respect, the ending is very moving, without going too saccharin.

The book has the potential to be schmaltzy, but there is this darkness to it that, for me, stops it being too sentimental. The characters of Harold and Maureen stayed with me long after the book had been finished, so the book has a longevity that I did not expect when I first set out on Harold’s pilgrimage.

I would recommend this book, but in a more cynical mindset, I could imagine not having the patience to get to know, and grow rather fond of, Harold Fry.

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