The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce has been in my “to read” pile for some time with several people gently nudging me towards reading it.
And gentle is the right word to to describe this book – gentle, surprising, and a little sentimental.
Something has gone wrong in Harold Fry’s world and it’s sort of vague, you just can’t put your finger on it. He has retired from his job at the brewery and his life has stopped – he doesn’t seem to do any more than cut the grass. His marriage to Maureen is damaged and silent. We know there was rage once. There were rage and accusations, but they have dwindled into resentment and silence. Something went wrong with his son David as well. David felt anger and disdain for this father and eventually just ignored him. And so life goes on with Harold quietly bewildered about how life ended up this way, but apparently just passively accepting it all.
And perhaps life would have continued his way until the end if not for an external force which shattered their world which came in the form of a sad letter from a dying friend from years before. Queenie Hennessy had worked with Harold in the brewery and they were drawn together by an act of kindness on his part. She, in turn, helped him in a time of crisis and lost her job as a result. News of her impending death so rattled Harold that he was compelled, on an impulse, to walk the 600 miles from Devon to Berwick-Upon-Tweed to visit and thank her.
So begins the pilgrimage of Harold Fry. He begins his journey with no plan beyond walking north. A conversation with a girl in a gas station affirms a belief in him that as long as he is walking Queenie will remain alive waiting for him. As he walks and remembers, he sheds the traumas of his past which had immobilized him. As he rids himself of his few personal possessions and gives himself over to his journey he comes to accept his own mistakes and serves as an inspiration for Maureen and the numerous other pilgrims who join him on his journey.
This is a lovely book – funny, offbeat, heartwarming. Take away the sentimentality and I’m reminded of Graham Swift whose Wish You Were Here is reflective and moving with well-drawn memorable characters.
“On an autumn day in 2006, on the Isle of Wight, Jack Luxton, former Devon farmer and now the proprietor of a seaside caravan park, receives the news that his soldier brother Tom, not seen for years, has been killed in Iraq. For Jack and his wife Ellie this will have a potentially catastrophic impact. For Jack in particular it means a crucial journey–to receive his brother’s remains, but also into his own most secret, troubling memories and into the land of his and Ellie’s past. Wish You Were Here is both a gripping account of things that touch and test our human core and a resonant novel about a changing England. Rich with a sense of the intimate and the local, it is also, inescapably, about a wider, afflicted world. Moving towards an almost unbearably tense climax, it allows us to feel the stuff of headlines–the return of a dead soldier from a foreign war–as heart-wrenching personal truth.” publisher