The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
At the start of this book, we see Harold Fry sitting at the breakfast table “freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie”. He thinks “he might like to go out, but the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday.” His wife Maureen is hoovering before breakfast. In these simple domestic scenes, we learn a lot about this elderly couple and their relationship, since he is retired, yet still makes the effort to dress as though going to work and she is obsessive about everything being just right.
Harold receives a letter from an old work colleague, Queenie Hennessy who is dying in a hospice. She “is writing to say goodbye.” Harold pens a reply, goes out to post it, but decides to deliver the letter personally — and on foot — instead. The fact that Harold lives in Kingsbridge in Devon while the hospice is hundreds of miles away in Berwick on Tweed do not deter him; nor that he has no suitable footwear, waterproof clothing, map or mobile phone. Harold Fry is one of life’s innocents. There are things he is able to do simply because he doesn’t realise he can’t do them.
The journey of 627 miles takes 87 days. Harold walks much of it alone, relying on the help and kindness of strangers. At one point he attracts a follower, then a group, who walk with him, and for a short time he becomes a sort of guru, albeit an unwilling one. But in a wonderful commentary on modern life and the cult of celebrity, his followers turn on him and he is alone once more.
Occasionally, we leave Harold on his walk and spend time with Maureen, whose world slowly unravels as she feels her husband moving further away from her, both physically and mentally. The clues to their relationship, and that with their son David, are gradually uncovered.
There are many reasons for picking one book to read out of all the millions of options. This debut novel by successful playwright Rachel Joyce had much to recommend it: it received excellent reviews; it was longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize; I was given enthusiastic word of mouth recommendations including one from my husband; and it happened to be on the bookshelf when I was looking for something to read. But above all, I wanted to read it because Harold’s journey takes him through Chudleigh, the town we now call home. In fact, he stays the night there, although the experience is dismissed in a single sentence! But by then I was completely gripped by the story. It took 95 pages to get from Kingsbridge to Chudleigh, a distance of merely 30 miles. Yet the book is less than 400 pages in total. As the journey continues, we move from detailed description of surroundings and minutiae of daily life to a more broad-brush viewpoint, mirroring Harold’s mental state.
I was going to finish by saying this book made me cry; but as someone who goes dewy-eyed at everything from Bambi to the John Lewis Christmas adverts, that’s not saying much. In fact, this book made me sob, but in a good way. It is beautifully-written with realistic characters and great dialogue; funny, charming, and occasionally sad but never depressing. The ending is wonderful. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Out of 5 stars, it gets at least a 6.
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