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Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye. Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live. Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years. And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy. A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller.

Harold Fry is an ordinary man living a very ordinary life. Recently retired, he spends his days at home with his wife Maureen, yet the two of them seem to live a parallel existence. They live in separate rooms, and barely speak. When they do speak, it is without affection and you quickly realize that they have lost touch with each other, and did so a very long time ago. It is heartbreaking to see these two individuals who cannot communicate with each other, despite being together for so long. Additionally, both Harold and Maureen have lost their sense of self; there is a mysterious event in their past that has redefined them, and they refuse to challenge that loss in order to return to who they used to be. All that changes, however, when Harold receives a letter from an old friend, informing him that she is dying, and to thank Harold for his friendship. Harold is thrown back into his memories at the receipt of this letter, and what begins as a simple trip to the post box to send a hopeful note in return leads to a decision that changes Harold’s life. Instead of writing her, he calls and leaves a message at her hospice:

“Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living. Will you say that?” ~ p. 19

Determined to walk across England in the hope that it will prolong or even save Queenie’s life, Harold begins his pilgrimage like so many others before him – inauspicious, and without a clear idea of how it will all end. Dressed in his everyday wear, and with yachting shoes on his feet, Harold sets off, not entirely sure what he will accomplish, but knowing that he needs to do something.

“He had no walking boots or compass, let alone a map or change of clothes. The least planned part of the journey, however, was the journey itself. He hadn’t known he was going to walk until he started. Never mind the finely tuned elements; there was no plan.” ~ p. 26

This becomes a theme within Joyce’s debut, as each person involved is forced to face the idea of making a difference with their lives, especially after having done nothing at all for so long. Harold, Maureen, their neighbours and the people Harold meet along the way are all affected in some way by Harold’s decision in some way. Joyce manages to merge this life-changing moment with some humour, as she makes some not-so-subtle digs at the media and their role in augmenting simple things to biblical proportions. From Facebook to book deals, breakfast television interviews to themed t-shirts, these media moments in real life often remove us from the meaning behind basic actions. In this book, the media is also the conduit by which Maureen is able to follow her husband; estranged from him both emotionally and physically, she is left with short phone calls and postcards as methods of communication, so it is the media broadcasts that keep her connected as she begins her own search for self. The book paints the picture at the start of two people living in the same house, but very much apart emotionally. Harold’s walk is more than a journey to a friend; it’s a journey back to himself. Maureen is left behind – resentful, unwilling to join him but unsure of where to go next, until that moment when they both allow themselves to let go of the past. Harold and Maureen must face up to the decisions they made in the past, but they must also accept that they were not alone in their errors. Each comes to rediscover the affection and friendship they give each other; however, with that comes the fear that they have lost that connection forever.

“Harold was right: it was too much to bear. To have come all this way and discovered what you wanted, only to know you must lose it again.” ~ p 310

Their growth is difficult, and, at times, bittersweet, but it is an essential part of the pilgrimage. Only by moving physically apart, kilometre by kilometre, can they move forward together as a couple. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was recently nominated as part of the ManBooker longlist, and it is easy to see why. The characters strike a chord with the reader that may not resonate in a pleasant way, but it’s worthwhile following Harold’s path as it plays out to the end. Now the only question that remains is “Who is Queenie Hennessy?”.  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is available from Indigo, Amazon and your neighbourhood independent bookstore. This copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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2 Responses »

  1. Really looking forward to reading this one. I picked it up at BEA and have heard nothing but great things! Thanks for the thoughtful review!

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