In her debut novel, The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce tells a story of regret, redemption and forgiveness. Harold Fry is a pensioner, living in Southern England. He spends his days quietly and without fuss, barely exchanging any words with his wife, Maureen. One day, Harold receives a letter from Queenie, an old colleague and friend, with whom he hasn’t spoken in many years. Queenie is in a hospice in Northern England, dying of cancer, and she is just writing to say goodbye. Harold writes a quick reply and he’s on his way to the post office to send it, when he suddenly gets the urge to keep walking. He needs to keep walking, believing that he can keep Queenie alive as long as he continues his walk towards her. This is the story of his journey.
I am a long distance runner. The thing that I find most exciting about running far is that I get to see new places. That is why I was immediately fascinated by the premise of this book. Harold’s journey, especially in the first 50 or so pages of the book, capture the powerful wanderlust which I feel when I travel on foot. I could just picture myself running along those same roads, surrounded by flowers and lush green fields, as Harold walked. I could easily identify with his desire to keep going.
But this book is ultimately not about wanderlust. It’s about life, and death, and how sometimes you’re alive even though you don’t actually live your life. It is about overcoming personal obstacles and fears. It is a simple book, on the surface. Joyce’s writing is easy to read and keeps the reader turning the pages. Still, once the book is finished, the emotional impact can be very deep indeed, the simplicity of the book an illusion. Because underneath his polite exterior and his quaint ”Englishness” lie Harold’s repressed feelings.
This bitter-sweet tale sags a bit in the middle and almost runs out of steam, but perhaps it is meant to feel that way. After all, it is a huge undertaking of a journey, and Harold is bound to get tired at some point. But, if you stick with it to the end, it will not disappoint you. The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the kind of book that grows on you the more you think about it, and you are likely to think about it a lot.