The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

It’s always a delight when reading a book by a debut author and it blows you away. I left The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry on the bookcase with a great longing to return to it and savour each word again and again. Rachel Joyce has a skill for both captivating an audience and writing prose that is full of whimsy and emotion. She has created a character in Harold Fry that readers will fall in love with for he is an everyman who does something rather extraordinary.

The story begins with Harold Fry, a sweet old man reminiscent of Carl Fredricksen from Pixar’s Up, as he sits at the breakfast table. He his handed a letter by his standoffish wife, upon opening the letter it transpires that one of Harold’s old colleagues, Queenie, is dying from cancer in a hospice in Berwick On Tweed. Harold decides to reply and heads out to post his reply. Only, Harold doesn’t stop at the first post box, or the second. In fact Harold decides that his words are not enough and that he will walk to Berwick on Tweed with nothing but the letter and his old yachting shoes.

Harold believes with a sweet naivety that by walking all the way to Queenie that he can save her from the cancer that eats away at her life. Harold stops at a phone box to call the hospice, upon speaking to a nurse Harold delivers his message to Queenie. His words depict his character perfectly: “I am on my way. All you have to do is wait. Because I am going to save you, you see. I will keep walking and you must keep living.”

Of course Harold is leaving his wife behind as he walks, leaving their relationship even more estranged. The story is contained within their relationship; his wife Maureen hasn’t shown him any affection in twenty years since the incident with their son David. She’s moved into the spare room, lost her passion for both him and life in general. As Harold walks the 627 miles from his door to Queenie he thinks upon his life and leaves Maureen thinking about her own. Through these internal monologues we see what has come before and the feelings that they are too stubborn to communicate to each other.

The past is teased throughout the entire novel and is only revealed at the climax of the story. These hidden truths are what sucks in the reader. It’s the yearning to know what caused the couple to break apart and a need to see them reconcile. Though, it’s worth noting that the truth stopped me in my tracks as everything fell into place as made my heart ache for these delicate people.

The story is driven by the sadness that accompanies Harold as he walks and as we walk with him. Along the way he meets people who divulge both bizarre and sweet admissions about their lives that solidify Harold’s mission. As he collects these stories we feel the weight grow upon his shoulders as he reflects on his own story. It becomes an utterly uplifting and optimistic tale leaving a smile on your face that balances out the tears expressed in other moments.

It’s all so genuinely realised and believable and that pulls you in further with each step Harold takes. It’s in his stubborn and dogged determination that we fall for Harold further. He shuns the modern walking shoes feeling that he is more whole with his yachting shoes. He refuses any more than he needs and falls back on his raggedy carrier bag full of souvenirs for Queenie and his wife. The novel is thoroughly British in its humour, too, which again balances the melancholy.

So much happens along the way but it is all just an accompaniment to the love story that lies at its core. People join Harold; he is betrayed, helped and supported by others. He sleeps in hotels, under the stars and in the care of wellwishers. It’s all very comfortable padding that surrounds Harold and Maureen.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an absolute delight to read. It’s not only a wonderful story but a piece of work that will leave the reader thinking about the qualities of our own lives. Joyce has perfectly encapsulated a person’s humility and fragility and wrapped it up in this quintessentially British novel that brings about both tears of sadness and joy.

Available in March 2012 from Doubleday. Kindly sent by the publisher.

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