The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce: A Review

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, Bond Street Books (Random House), 2012, 336 pp.

I miss England (particularly North Yorkshire). It’s been three years now since I was there, though I remember it with uncanny precision, something completely uncharacteristic of me but indicative of my being present in every moment I was there. It was a short but life-changing two weeks.

I spent the majority of my time there walking, dressed in gaiters and waterproof clothing and hiking shoes. I drank most of my tea from a thermos. With the absence of stress came clarity, and I found myself examining my ordinary life in Belleville. Walking will do that to a person, apparently. And after several day-long hikes in the dales, I wanted to do the longest walk in Great Britain, from Land’s End to John o’Groats. It’s about 1,900 kms and takes a couple of months at least, on foot, in unpredictable weather. I remain optimistic and undaunted. I once walked for three days, from Paris to Chartres in France, which is 72 miles, through woods and fields and over blacktop highways and up and down country roads, carrying all my supplies on my back. I camped out in forests and miraculously did not suffer any blisters or ailments. So of course I feel invincible. What’s another few hundred kms?

Like me, Harold Fry lives a small life. Unlike me, he’s recently retired. He sits around or mows the lawn, and that’s about the extent of his activities. Also, he is in a loveless marriage to Maureen, who mostly says in response, “I think not.”

Thankfully, sometimes opportunities come about to make an ordinary life extraordinary (this is actually happening to me, too):

The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelled of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast he wasn’t eating. …

“Harold!” called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. “Post!”

… They both looked at the letter as if they had never seen one before. It was pink. …

Harold studied the mysterious envelope. Its pink was not the color of the bathroom suite, or the matching towels and fluffed cover for the toilet seat. That was a vivid shade that made Harold feel he shouldn’t be there. But this was delicate. A Turkish Delight pink. His name and address were scribbled in ballpoint, the clumsy letters collapsing into one another as if a child had dashed them off in a hurry: Mr. H Fry, 13 Fossebridge Road, Kingsbridge, South Hams. He didn’t recognize the handwriting.

So begins the story of what a difference several hundred kilometres can make, of how Harold Fry’s life drastically changes. He writes a short response to the devastating contents of this pink envelope—a letter telling him a former coworker, Queenie, to whom he hasn’t spoken in twenty years but to whom he was close, is dying of cancer—and when he goes to drop off his note at the post box, Harold finds he can’t deposit it. So he continues to the next one, and then the next. Feeling liberated as he walks, it occurs to Harold to just keep going, all the way to the letter’s destination, Berwick-upon-Tweed, about 500 kms away. So long as he is walking, he comes to believe, Queenie will live. Come on: it’s a beautiful, endearing sentiment; sometimes I too think things like this.

The journey, either metaphorical or literal, is probably one of the oldest and simplest devices in literature to facilitate a character’s development and change in circumstances. Nevertheless, I find the idea for this particular journey rather magical, as hope often is. And it really isn’t your typical story. Yes, Harold is on a type of quest. Yes, along the way he encounters help and hindrance. And of course there is internal conflict and growth as Harold examines his traumatic childhood, turbulent relationship with his son, and his difficult marriage. But Harold is not your average journeyman. As the title suggests, he’s definitely not one whom you might expect would on a whim decide to traverse the country, being elderly, not especially fit, and dressed in only a light jacket and yachting shoes. As many of us have perhaps wished to do, maybe from work, say, Harold leaves with no plan, without saying goodbye or telling anyone. He simply passes by his initial destination and rather than being equipped with anything reliable to guide his way, is running solely on hope.

Much like a person on a quest, though, Harold is a man we feel deeply sympathetic toward, from as early in the book as the first few pages, during which he responds to Queenie’s letter. I was taken in right here:

[Harold] said nothing. 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. (5)

So we approve of and accept Harold’s decision, even though we haven’t a clue who Queenie really is yet and even though it is indeed so unlikely a pilgrimage. And we commit even further as we become privy to his inner workings, mentally, emotionally, and even physically, all of these appropriately, intimately revealed as the journey progresses. We learn of his past, about his deteriorating relationship with Maureen, the truth about their son, David, and of course about Queenie, the friend whom he’s determined to visit. The unravelling of this history is masterfully done, though at times I felt the device of revealing backstory through memory overused. Still, how else to tell it in this story? “He no longer saw the distance in terms of miles. He measured it with his remembering.” While you’re walking, particularly alone, time to reflect is unlimited. This is indeed what you do—you continally remember things. Add to that the meeting of various characters along the way who remind you of your past, and there’s a lot of reflecting going on. What makes it readable in this book and in fact compelling is that you find out more truths as the book progresses, and sometimes these truths are shocking twists. Joyce is careful in her writing not to acquiesce to possible expectations.

There’s also a captivating tone to Joyce’s storytelling, emphasized by title chapters like “Harold and the Barman and the Woman with Food,” and “Harold and the Physician and the Very Famous Actor,” “Maureen and the Telephone Call,” “Harold and the Dog” and “Maureen and the Publicist.” Fairy-taleish is how best to describe it, I think, and also slightly mysterious, and this, along with the way we come to know the backstories, sets a good pace for the book and the walk itself.

A strange thing: being on this journey with Harold made me feel reluctant to close the book, as though doing so would leave him alone, lying awake under the stars or sitting in a tearoom, not only lonely but detrimentally paused. Time is of the essence here, after all; we’re racing against Death. So when I had to stop reading, which I was reluctant to do, as it felt as though turning the pages kept Harold moving, I actually never closed the book; I always left it lying open. Harold and his walk struck me as so three-dimensional that closing the book was acknowledging they weren’t, in fact, real. I would have felt, as I did at the end, rather like Bastian, closing the Neverending Story.

As a reviewer, though, I can’t just read for pleasure. I paid attention also to balance of the journey, and whether elements were unrealistic or not (they were not), whether characters Harold met along the way were too conveniently placed. But they were not. While one or two offer shelter, more often, Harold is burdened by these meetings, as people confide their troubles to him and he learns that the encouragement on his journey needs to come as much from within as from others. The focus in this book, both for Harold and Maureen, is less on external influences and more on introspection, and the contrast between Harold’s extreme actions and Maureen’s cloistering herself at home while both move forward is a wonderful way to say that anyone can change, regardless of where they are.

I also questioned when Harold’s walk seemed too easy for who he was and as unprepared as he was. But just as any questions arose, Joyce answered them. And when hard times fell on Harold, most heart-breakingly near the end, they seemed to mirror exactly how life goes. Sometimes we experience smooth sailing, and sometimes everything becomes so frustrating you could cry or give up. When a group of well-meaning but misunderstanding and waylaying pilgrims decides to join Harold on his mission to Queenie, I feared the book would be utterly ruined if they didn’t disband or Harold was unable to escape them, and I thought of them as intruders, as one might feel when one is interrupted while reading something good. But this turned out to be an appropriate response, and thus could not be a criticism, because their overlong stay and my desperation to keep moving were exactly the intention. As much as I remained vigilant, I could find nothing, really, to complain about.

While it is a rather feel-good story, it is tempered by tragedy and conflict. Thankfully, it doesn’t give way to cheesiness or unrealistic predictability. And Harold, but also Maureen and Rex and the silver-haired gentleman (oh, that chapter!), is so sympathetically portrayed, you must grieve a little that he is only a character in a book. The way he observes and interprets his surroundings fleshes out both him and his journey.

A cracking of branches sent him scurrying forward, only to look back, with his heart wildly beating, and discover a pigeon regaining its balance in a tree. As time passed and he found his rhythm, he began to feel more certain. England opened beneath his feet, and the feeling of freedom, of pushing into the unknown, was so exhilarating…. He was in the world by himself and nothing could get in the way or ask him to mow the lawn. [...]

Life was very different when you walked through it. … There were so many shades of green Harold was humbled. … Far away the sun caught a passing car, maybe a window, and the light trembled across the hills like a fallen star. How was it he had never noticed all this before? Pale flowers, the name of which he didn’t know, pooled the foot of the hedgerows, along with primroses and violets.

(Later, Harold actually buys a guide to wildflowers so he can identify the ones he comes across on his walk. How can you not love this man?)

While sometimes the writing betrays that this is a first novel, in general it is like molasses in your mouth. Joyce often found new and wonderful ways to say ordinary things (and I’m annoyed at myself for not remembering what they were. Something about a nose pulling at the air, for example…). I admit, too, that her English way of phrasing things made me love the writing all the more.

One might perhaps accuse the book of being too precious, but I argue that it is, rather, a deeply compassionate tone that might be mistaken for such sentimentality. The end in particular may be thought of as too neat and happily-ever-after, but it is not an easily attained end nor an unlikely one. The Unlikely Pilgimage of Harold Fry is charming, yes. But it’s much more than that. In it we encounter both humour and pain. It is an insightful exploration of regret, grief, and marriage; also joy, benevolence, and compassion for others (family, friends, and even strangers). It is about human weakness in its copious forms, happiness in the many, often quiet or seemingly small acts of bravery. Ultimately, this novel is beautiful, and deceivingly complex, and while it may not end a Man Booker winner (I say that based only on past winners), it’s not difficult to see why it has been longlisted.

The Journey of Harold Fry to Belleville

Dear Steph,

Attended this Chatelaine Book Club event tonight (Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), & thought it sounds just like your kind of book. So I just snagged you a copy and got it signed. Also stuck in a button (“badge” as Rachel called it before correcting herself) that they were also giving away.

[...]

In the meantime, hope you enjoy this book! I’ve been wanting to read it since RHC compared it to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, one of my go-to handsells at NH. Rachel is absolutely lovely in person & Harold Fry has just been longlisted for the Booker. So—enjoy!

[...]

In other news—the event featured fish & chips in paper cones. Super greasy goodness & very, very English. :)

Love,

Jaclyn [@jacqua83] [literarytreats.wordpress.com]

Thank you, Jaclyn, for your thoughtfulness and overwhelming kindness, which added to my enjoyable experience of this book and makes me treasure it, and to Chatelaine Books and Random House for your generosity. 

  1. I really love your review of this book because it really shows the variety of ways this story can move you. From the very first chapter I fell in love with the story, and I can completely understand your feeling of not wanting to close the book and leave Harold alone. Definitely a book I’ll be recommending to people for years to come.

  2. Hey Christa,

    Thanks! I had a really hard time writing the review. I think for two reasons: I felt unable to express how I felt immediately and so left quite a bit of time between finishing and reviewing, and this time that wasn’t helpful. Also, I enjoyed it so much while reading that I was feeling reluctant to have to review it and sort of ruin that experience by separating myself from it enough to write the review. I felt extraordinarily close to the book because of my missing England.

    Not only that, actually: I think I was fighting something strange in myself about liking the book. Sometimes I worry that I miss things, that I should be criticising certain books more. It’s completely stupid and indicative of my lack of confidence as a reviewer, but there you have it. I worry what people will think of me liking a certain book or certain type of book and not taking some issue with it. So then I struggled while writing the review, trying to think of what others might say in response or just in general in their own (professional) review. A colossal waste of energy on my part and potentially unfair to everyone. I’m glad I decided just to say what I remember feeling and thinking, and go with all the little Post-it stickies of appreciation I used!

  3. I’d love to hear what you think, Trish! (As for you being a bit of an Anglophile too, that’s just one more reason to add to the many why we need to hang out.)

  4. Wonderful review, Steph! I love how you made Harold’s journey feel so personal. :)

    And you’re very welcome. :) So sweet of you to include me in your blog post!

  5. I’ve been wanting to read this for some time now and you have me completely, 100% sold. I love novels of journeys, and a journey spurred on so completely by hope sounds both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

    I recently finished The Unnamed, about a man who has an unnamed disease that makes him walk and walk and walk without being able to stop. It sounds like Harold Fry could be the perfect counterpoint to that read, with a man walking without hope and without purpose.

    By the way, I think walking through England would be an amazing experience. “With the absence of stress came clarity” — what a wonderful way to sum up such a time.

  6. Oh Kerry,

    England is an amazing place to walk. I’d also love to go gallivanting in New Zealand. Anywhere that has wide open spaces and hilly places really appeals to me. New Zealand takes my breath away in pictures and on TV. But England, what I love is you can always see where you’ve been and where you’re going. You get the lay of the land. And the entire island is walking trails, it’s their thing, you know? I love it! I would go every year if I could afford it. It pains me not to go. I love walking, but here it’s so boring and otherwise you have to drive an age to get somewhere nice and then…it’s just not the same. Though I do enjoy walking wooded trails.

    I’ve heard of The Unnamed. Did you like it? Someone else told me it was rather depressing. Harold will be the opposite. It’s tragic in some parts, and has several surprises, but even in the struggles there is beauty, and the end is quite…well. I’ll let you find out for yourself.

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