The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is one of those books for me that has been sat on my shelves since the beginning of time and, having finally got round to it, I found I should have read it so much earlier. It is such a wholesome story which deals with the tragedy and traumas of human life, yet still somehow retaining an innocence and a wonder which makes it utterly irresistible.
Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.
Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.
Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him – allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.
And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.
Trigger Warnings: suicide; grief; trauma; abandonment; addiction
One of things that truly makes this book shine is the character of Harold. In Harold you have a character who on the surface seems to resonate innocence and purity. Recently retired, Harold seems to have lost purpose and a heavy weight of silence seems to have spread between his wife and himself. As Harold begins his journey, both literal and metaphorical, Harold has to come to turns with past trauma and guilt. As he wanders the paths towards Berwick-on-Tweed, he is continually made to confront memories from his life. There is a simplicity in the determination he has to his walk, and the faith he has towards revisiting these key moments of his life. I loved learning more about Harold as a character, especially his past. What is magical about this read is that Harold’s journey causes others to reflect on the past too, including his wife, and it was really interesting to see one event reminisced by two characters so differently.
Harold’s journey leads to him meeting, and having a profound affection different people. To those who have loved and lost to arrogant film stars, there seems to be no one that escapes Harold. The kindness he evokes in others is both endearing to read and at times unbelievable. However Joyce manages to write into reality a world and mentality which we should try to have. There is a rawness and innocence in the way characters confess to Harold their deepest doubts and their sacrificial kindness it seems to bring forth.
Whilst I could spend the entirety of this review discussing the wonder of Harold, I feel like I can’t discuss this book without mentioning his wife Maureen. It would be easy just to paint her as the villain in this tale but Maureen’s tale is much more complicated than that. As she is left behind and forced to deal with how her life has changed as the pair deal with the cruelties of life. While Harold undertakes a physical journey, Maureen’s is truly spiritual and I found it was often her chapters I was desperate to read.
This read is utterly stunning and left me completely astounded with the wonder of these characters. If you’re looking for an intriguing read about human survival and determination, this is one for you.