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The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

This is a road novel, but with a difference.  Harold Fry used to rep for the brewery, but he’s now retired.  He has nothing to do but get in his wife Maureen’s way.  He’s in a rut, they’re in a rut, basically ever since their son David left, they’ve been in a rut – that’s a lot of rut.

Then one morning a letter arrives for Harold  from Queenie who used to work in accounts at the brewery. It says she is dying of cancer and in a hospice at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold writes a short letter back, sets off to post it, and as he walks he gets a bit teary thinking about Maureen and David while watching a mother with her son…

Office workers were laughing with lunchtime pints outside the Old Creek Inn, but Harold barely noticed. As he began the steep climb up Fore Street, he thought about the mother who was so absorbed in her son she saw no one else. It occurred to him it was Maureen who spoke to David and told him their news. It was Maureen who had always written Harold’s name (‘Dad’) in the letters and cards. It was even Maureen who had found the nursing home for his father. And it begged the question – as he pushed the button at the pelican crossing – that if she was, in effect, Harold, ‘Then who am I?’ He strode past the post office without even stopping.

It’s the girl in the garage who confirms to him what he should do. He stops for a snack, and she tells him about her aunt who had cancer and they all prayed for her to get better. Harold doesn’t turn back, he’s decided to walk all the way to Berwick.

The only problem is that he’s in the South Hams in Devon – it’s 627 miles. A life-changing decision for Harold is indeed an unlikely pilgrim. He’s totally under-equipped, wearing the wrong shoes, the wrong clothes and with no supplies or first-aid kit; it’s not long before he gets bad blisters.

He plods along, blisters allowing, inching towards his destination by six, seven, or maybe eight miles a day. He begins to delight in the nature he sees along the way, and he always manages to find a bed for the night. He keeps in touch with Maureen and Queenie, with postcards and brief phone-calls. Poor Maureen is in a quandary, half wanting to leap in the car and either stop him, half hoping he’ll give up on his own, but incapable of actually doing anything herself.

The thing that keeps Harold going though is the people he meets. From a lovely Slovakian doctor who can only find work in the UK as a cleaner, to a silver-haired gentleman who needs to talk about his rent-boy lover…

He (Harold) understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

Not all his encounters are so benign, and for a while Harold becomes the centre of attention as his cause is picked up by the press. As you might hope and expect however, as Harold continues on his journey, the details of his story are teased out: How he met Maureen and their early days; how he met Queenie, and how she became a special friend to him; and about his son David. What started out as an entertaining and altruistic journey, (which reminded me slightly of Hector and the search for happiness initially), becomes something much deeper, darker and better as Harold explores himself, and is surprised at what he finds.

This is a novel that never descends into mawkishness or sentimentality, although it could have so easily. From the outset, you care about Harold – and Maureen and Queenie for that matter. I needed to hear their stories, and to hear how they ended. I chuckled, I welled up with tears, and I kept turning the pages, needing to read on. (9/10)

Despite being a debut novel, Rachel Joyce is not a novice at writing, having honed her art on Radio 4 plays and the like.  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of  Harold Fry is an accomplished story and justifies its selection as one of the 2012 Waterstones 11 pick of the best debut novels coming out this spring.

Read also: Fleur Fisher‘s thoughts on this fine novel.

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I received an ARC of this novel via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, pub 15 March by Doubleday. Hardback, 304 pages.
Hector & the Search for Happiness (Hector’s Journeys) by Francis Lelord

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