The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
This is a very sweet novel about old age and regret and Englishness. It takes a simple but interesting idea and keeps it engaging throughout. The author’s inclusion of social media such as Facebook and Twitter in the storyline was of course a gift to the publisher’s marketing department (as you may have started to notice) but do not be put off – it’s worth a chance.
Harold Fry has been retired for six months and spends his days with his wife Maureen keeping boredom at bay, when he receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie, telling him that she is dying of cancer. He goes out to post a reply and keeps on walking. He resolves to walk all the way from his home in Kingsbridge, South Devon, to Berwick Upon Tweed (so almost the whole length of England), having some idea that this is an act of faith that will save her life.
There are a few secrets at the heart of this story that are revealed slowly, with clues and partial memories dropped in between the story of Harold’s trek. Some I guessed and some I didn’t, but I don’t think it matters hugely either way; there is plenty enough story to keep you engaged even if you think you have figured the secrets out.
There are quite a few “issues” dealt with, including how it can be difficult to adapt to retirement, and how parents affect their child’s life, but the one that got to me the most was Harold and Maureen’s marriage. For 20 years they have lived at a polite distance, never really talking about what they want to say, to the point that when Harold starts his walk neither can understand the other. Maureen is bemused by the walk and the rules Harold has set himself (which change a few times anyway) and thinks that maybe Harold is doing it because he was once in love with Queenie. Harold thinks his wife will not miss him, that she will not be affected at all by his absence. During his walk, they both have time to think about the past, their marriage, what they once meant to each other and how things have changed. They both come to life, in their own ways, waking up from the monotony they had got stuck in.
The chapters alternate between Harold and Maureen, and they are both lovely characters, though both are also a little difficult and frosty at times. They are old-fashioned, in both good and bad ways. For instance, when a stranger confesses to Harold that he is cheating on his wife with a young man, Harold is appalled and repulsed but continues to listen politely.
There is a lot of detail about the landscape and route of Harold’s walk, sometimes lovingly admiring of England, sometimes less than complimentary, but this tends to reflect Harold’s mood mostly. He has realistic problems, mostly to do with his feet, and his perseverance in the face of pain is inspiring, though I couldn’t help but wonder at times if it was going to be worth it.
This book deals with some big issues in a quiet, understated way. It never gets gritty or deep into a subject, but it also doesn’t gloss over problems. A very sweet read.
This advance proof was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for a review.
Published March 2012 by Transworld Publishers.