Imagine my surprise when I began this novel, which tells of a man who pops out one day to post a letter and finds himself walking 600 miles, and discovered that the journey begins in my hometown of Kingsbridge in Devon. Turns out the novelist is married to one of my brother’s school friends, the actor Paul Venables. So I must admit that part of my affection for this book was driven by the familiar places she describes, and the people I know who have similarities with the characters in the story. However there is far more to it than that, and I enjoyed it a great deal.
Harold Fry is 65, fairly recently retired, and stuck in limbo. He and his buttoned-up wife Maureen have barely spoken in 20 years, their one son is no longer at home, and if he was prone to introspection Harold would be questioning the point of his life. He isn’t though, or at least not when we first meet him. He’s having breakfast one day when he receives a letter from Queenie, an old friend he has lost touch with. Queenie is writing to say goodbye, as she has terminal cancer. Harold dashes off a quick reply, and walks to the end of the road to post it. Except he doesn’t stop, he keeps on walking, and by the end of the first day has resolved to walk all the way to Berwick-upon-Tweed to see Queenie, believing that his quest can keep her alive. He is without map, preparation or provisions, and is wearing a pair of boat shoes. But he believes in himself; over the course of his journey, that determination will be severely tested.
The episodic book shifts between Harold’s soul-searching and experiences on the road, and Maureen’s emotional journey as the one he leaves behind. Portions of the book are sentimental and a bit saccharine, but in her presentation of the nature of grief, regret and self-belief, Joyce doesn’t pull any punches. The characters Harold meets on his journey range from the sympathetic (a Slovakian woman who helps him when he’s at a low ebb sticks in the mind) to the preposterous (a famous film actor doesn’t come off that well), but they all have a part to play in his effort. The group of hangers-on that forms around Harold as his pilgrimage becomes a national news story is particularly special, and this section of the book provides a wry observation on how hungry some people are for fame these days, and how they’ll appropriate anything to get it.
Harold’s arrival at his physical destination is anti-climactic, but deliberately so, as the real journey is the one that brings him and Maureen back together. I was very fond of these two characters, who were so every-day (we’ve all got friends of parents who are just like them), while at the same time extraordinary. This is a gem of a book.