BOOK REVIEWby Sherry Evans, Head of Public Services, Portsmouth Public Library (10.03.13)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012)
Proper Englishman, Harold Fry, is an unlikely pilgrim and hero. At 65, retired, safe and bored in a very long marriage, Harold’s days pass unremarkably. He feels he has led a completely unremarkable life. Not quite a good enough husband, father, friend and employee and yet he has managed. And until a letter arrives for him, he has come to expect no more from himself or life.
The letter that sets the entire story in motion is from an old work-mate named Queenie Hennessy, a woman he has not seen for over 20 years. She writes to let Harold know that she is not well, that she thinks of him often and that she has been told that there is nothing more that can be done for her. She is dying of cancer.
Instantly Harold feels something profound. Emotions, big ones. Tears, the inability to speak.
“He drew up tall with his lips parted, his face bleached. His voice, when at last it came, was small and far away. ‘It’s — cancer. Queenie is writing to say goodbye.’ He fumbled for more words but there weren’t any. Tugging a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, Harold blew his nose. ‘I um. Gosh’ Tears crammed his eyes”
Harold sets off to post a reply to Queenie and never returns home. His wife, Maureen, who doesn’t give Harold much thought, wonders where he is. Why he has not returned home as usual. Where is ordinary Harold?
Ordinary or not, Harold has decided to walk from his home in Kingsbridge, all the way to the northern town of Berwick-upon-Tweed where Queenie is in St. Bernadine’s Hospice. Extrapolating personal meaning from a story by the local filling station attendant, Harold decides that as long as he walks, Queenie will not die. In fact she will be saved. He calls St. Bernadines.
‘Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do it wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living. Will you say that?”
At turns sad (have tissues handy), poignantly reflective, brutally honest, with humor to make the hardiest of us cringe, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, hits high and low notes in all of us.
Early in the journey, he is a man battered by uncertainty and low self-esteem. Exposed as he is on the walk – no cell-phone, no hat, no change of clothes, only boat shoes on his feet – his English stiff upper lip collapses. Memories of his unworthy life cascade over him, especially his relationship with his son David. He mourns the last 20 years that he and Maureen have lived in the same house but shared so little, including a bedroom. What else to do? Keep walking. Save Queenie.
As Harold walks, now weeks into his journey and gaining confidence, he is joined by a dog and the young, scraggly Wilf.
‘Gasping for breath, he said he had come to join Harold. He spoke fast. His cheekbones were like pencils. He looked undernourished and barely twenty. On his feet he wore trainers with fluorescent green laces.’
“I am going to be a pilgrim, Mr. Fry. I’m going to save Queenie Hennessy too.”
Harold is renamed by the press…from walker to pilgrim. Queenie is a Saint and Harold her savior. With publicity come more pilgrims. And what happens when a group gathers? At first, immense self-righteousness, solidarity and good humor, only to be followed by the group- think qualities of dissidence, unflinching structure and disharmony. Harold clumsily, in his Harold way, becomes their leader. Stealing and bickering, sex and drugs and Harold contemplates leaving the group and walking alone. Much to Harold’s dismay, the large assembly slogs down, covering fewer and fewer miles. As public attention gathers however, he becomes more of a symbol than a man on a mission of salvation.
Harold has been assured that Queenie is in remission as a result of the news that he is on his way but we the reader, cannot help marveling at Harold’s naiveté. Does he think she will wait and wait and wait, no matter how long it takes? After all, Queenie has terminal cancer!
Eventually Harold does leave the group and set off on his own.
“It had come as a relief to Harold to walk alone. He and Dog took up their own rhythm, and there was no debating, no arguing.”
Soon, however, we begin to fear for his sanity. He stops eating, bathing, talks to no one and Dog leaves him. Harold’s life of disappointment, sadness and insignificance overcome him and he can barely lift one foot in front of the other. He doesn’t know what town he is in; he walks in the wrong direction, in circles, even.
We are now about two-thirds of the way through the book. We sense the downward arc of the story. Do we want him to stop or do we want him to go on? Will he collapse? Will he call Maureen for help? Will Queenie still be alive? Does it matter?
The story is too good to reveal any more details. Three quarters of the way through an enormous plot detail is revealed and I gasped!! And then another…and then another…. The pilgrimage story becomes secondary to the characters and their choices.
Stay with this book even when you think your heart will break. We have all been in Harold’s broken down, duct-taped shoes.
Marvelous! I held my breath at his every blister and cramp, and felt as if by turning the pages I might help his impossible quest succeed.
From the book jacket,
“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.”
Rachel Joyce is the award-winning writer of more than twenty plays for BBC Radio 4. She started writing after a twenty-year acting career, in which she performed leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and won multiple awards. Rachel Joyce lives in Gloucestershire on a farm with her family and is at work on her second novel.