The author of this novel, Rachel Joyce, has had a successful career writing over thirty “afternoon plays” for BBC Radio. These include both adaptations and original stories. I mention this fact because Joyce has a gift for narrative flow and gripping storytelling that is in full evidence in this, her first novel. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and received many accolades when it first appeared in 2012. I vaguely remember seeing it on various recommendation lists, but the story of a retired man finding himself wasn’t very attractive to me. However, a few weeks ago my friend Les Schroeder asked me if I had read it, because he had just finished it and wanted to talk about it. That was enough recommendation for me! I eagerly started reading this book as soon as I had finished The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu (see my previous post for a review). I was ready for something completely different, and that’s what I got.
As a character, Harold Fry is an everyman and yet totally unique. As the story begins, we find him sitting at the breakfast table in his nondescript home, watching his wife obsessively vacuum and clean while he wonders what he should be doing. He has recently retired from an unremarkable job at an unremarkable firm, and the despair of inactivity settles on him like volcanic ash. How many times can he mow the lawn? Then a letter arrives for him, opening a door to both his past and his future.
The letter is from Queenie Hennesey, a former co-worker whom Harold has not seen or spoken to in twenty years. She has written to Harold to tell him goodbye, explaining that she has an inoperable cancerous tumor and that she is now living in hospice care, waiting to die. The return address is Berwick-on-Tweed, a small village on the far northeast coast of England. This comes as a surprise since Harold and Queenie worked together in a town on the southwest coast, where he and his wife Maureen still live. Harold decides that he must respond to the letter, but he can’t settle on exactly what he should say. In spite of resentful and derisive comments from his wife, he determines to take his reply to the nearest mailbox so that it will be posted that very day. Setting off for the corner mailbox, he begins to experience a sense of purpose and freedom that has long been missing from his life.
When Harold arrives at the corner, he finds that he can’t bear to drop the letter in and return home. Walking a little further won’t hurt him, he figures. He walks on to the next box, and when the same reluctance to turn back occurs again, he keeps walking. He’ll go on to the town’s central post office, to make sure it gets posted, he rationalizes. But once at the post office, he still can’t let go of the letter. So he keeps walking. As he approaches the far edge of his town, he is gripped with the irrational notion that if he keeps walking, Queenie will keep living.
Harold calls his wife, who scoffs at his foolishness, of course. Then he calls the hospice to let Queenie know that he is on his way, insisting that she must continue living until he gets there. Without supplies, appropriate clothing, or even his cell phone, Harold embarks upon a remarkable journey, determined to walk across England to deliver his letter, in person, to his friend.
Along the way, Harold alternates between despair and hope, between despondency and faith. Every time he is ready to call it off and go back home, someone comes into his life to encourage him and restore his resolve. He begins to understand the generosity of receiving, the paradoxical knowledge that allowing others to help him will help them, as well. As he walks, he discovers lost memories, reconsiders his past, and learns to appreciate each present moment. Facing occasional pain, hunger, and bad weather, he discovers that not all dangers approach from the outside; some memories have more potential for damage than the trials of nature.
I don’t want to spoil the plot further for anyone who may choose to read this delightful book. But I do want to mention the narrative technique that the author employs because I think this is what sets the book apart from many other novels. Joyce very carefully rations out the facts of Harold’s life so that the reader is always discovering something new, not only in the current story of his pilgrimage but also in the backstory of the intertwining lives of Harold, Maureen, and Queenie. The narrative point of view revolves mostly around Harold, but occasionally switches to his wife Maureen, whose experiences of loss and confusion in her husband’s absence elicit her own memories and revelations.
The author uses Harold’s story to poke holes in the mythical fabric of the traditional, quiet English life, a life of social conventions and propriety. It seems that those heavy expectations are what Harold must throw off in order to find meaning in his life, and his walking pilgrimage serves to liberate not only Harold, Maureen, and Queenie, but also the many people with whom they come into contact. In fact, England herself becomes a character in the book – her geography, her weather, her people, and their idiosyncrasies. Anglophiles, like myself, will love it, as will those who enjoy tales of personal adventure and redemption.