Rachel Joyce’s debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is no doubted going to be one of those books that will be remembered in 2012 and also spoken about for a long time.
Newly retired, Harold Fry receives a letter one morning from Queenie, a woman he used to work with; she has written to say that she is nearing the end of her life. After much soul searching Harold drafts a reply and goes out after his breakfast to post the letter. However he gets to the first post box and rather than post the letter he keeps on walking onto the next, suddenly he finds himself making an unlikely journey by walking from his home in Devon to Queenie in Berwick on Tweed.
The book follows the journey, as he makes the decision to walk the distance in the hope of proving something to himself, saving someone and ultimately having a purpose in life. He walks with what he left his house in, on his feet are yachting shoes and this become a symbol for the journey as they cause him pain and heartache as the journey progresses. Along the way Harold meets a diverse mix of people who he treats as he finds and who treat him accordingly, all of them have stories to tell and as readers we are suddenly given a glimpse into someone else’s life; Martina the doctor from Slovakia waiting for the man who left her tends and heals Harold so his journey can continue.
One of the turning points in the story comes when others wish to join such a pilgrimage and it then becomes not about Harold’s journey to reach Queenie but everyone else walking, making a statement, making a journey. It was at this point that I felt the book was painful to read, these parasites on Harold’s journey caused him pain both physically and mentally and when they made Berwick on Tweed after Harold purposely loses them it is a relief as it goes back to Harold’s journey. This is not a criticism of the plot but it actually evoked sentiment about who the journey was about, those that made it to Berwick on Tweed were not important they wanted the glory and the coverage, which was not what Harold’s journey was all about. Joyce handles all of this with such emotional lyrical language you feel touched by everything and everyone that Harold comes into contact with.
Back at home Harold’s wife Maureen is going through her own journey without leaving the house. There is a rift between Harold and his wife and her obsessive cleaning and her obvious annoyance at anything Harold does, touches, says, does not do, acts has driven a very large wedge between them. Maureen seeks solace in talking to their son David, but Harold cannot see what this is ever going to achieve. As Harold continues, Maureen then starts to have to survive on her own, is it necessary to clean as such, will talking to David actually help her and bring back Harold or will personal changes she has to make be the only way to heal the rift that has grown into a chasm. As Berwick on Tweed is reached by Harold, everything changes and perhaps he is not an unlikely character as we all thought.
What I loved about this book was that as you started reading you knew nothing about the characters, (as is the norm with a book obviously) but even after fifty pages, there were still gaping holes in background knowledge that would make you understand why they were reacting as they were. This is what makes this book and the journey captivating as you want to know why they are reacting the way they are; what did Queenie do to help Harold all them years ago? Why will Harold not talk to David? So many questions are waiting to be answered, but as with all journeys many more are waiting to be discovered as well.
Rachel Joyce is the author of numerous afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4, and has created adaptations for radio and TV, including a feature-length adaptation of Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At A Distance. In 2007 she won the Tinniswood Award for Best Radio Play. She began writing after an award-winning, 20-year career in theatre and television, performing leading roles for the RSC, the National and the Royal Court.
For a debut novel this is very good, it is a book which I do not think I would have picked up but the cover and the title struck a chord with me. I think everyone is on a journey of sorts and perhaps they do not recognise or acknowledge it and for that I felt connected somehow to this book.
I became infuriated with those that stuck to Harold for their own glory and it was a reflection of how the media can latch onto a story and miss the whole point of it, it was therefore emotional when Harold did reach his destination with no recognition other than his own which he doubted and Queenie’s who perhaps knew he had arrived the moment he had sent the letter to say he was coming and to maintain faith and more importantly strength until he arrived.
Initially in the beginning once Harold’s journey was underway I was concerned that we were going to stop at every place with him, and meet a variety of different people and I thought that this was going to turn into some travelogue or tourist guide to the areas. It did not, as Harold’s momentum gained Joyce beautifully leads us to the relevant places and cleverly covered many miles with him and where he stopped without devoting chapters of what could have been mindless travel.
Another simple but effective tool that Joyce uses in this book is the naming of her chapters for example, “Harold and the Letter”, “Harold and the Doctor”, “Harold and Queenie” they give you an insight into what is going to feature in these relatively short chapters that the becomes short stories within their own right in some cases.
Finally I think I might make comment about the cover, plain and simple on the front, but the back and also included within is a lovely map of Britain charting Harold’s journey.
Thank you to Amazon Vine for giving me the opportunity to read this book. Published by Doubleday on 15 March 2012. Do let me know if you read this.