Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #66: The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryeIt seems that most of the books I read these days are inspired by other Cannonballers. I first heard of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) by Rachel Joyce from Cannonball Read, and it was the positive reviews that made me want to read it. And I did like it, but it’s difficult to sum up my feelings for this one. On the one hand, I’d just read an English family drama before starting on Fry, and I was ready for something different. I often felt impatient while Harold continued walking…and walking. But Harold’s struggles have stayed with me. I was not too surprised when I read at the end of the book that Rachel Joyce had written this while she was coming to terms with her own father’s death from cancer. It was poignant and real. If I’d been in a more introspective mood rather than yearning for adventure stories, I may have even liked it more.

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loulamac’s #CBRV review #46: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce


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.

Scootsa1000’s #CBR5 Review 31: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Unknown-3I’ve read a lot of wonderfully written books about the horrible thing that is cancer. Having lost a parent to cancer, the  books that have hit me the hardest and reduced me to a pile of tears were the first half of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Fault in Our Stars, and now this lovely book by Rachel Joyce.

Harold Fry and his wife Maureen are pensioners living on the very southern tip of England, right on the ocean. Their marriage is stale — they barely speak to each other, and have slept in separate bedrooms for 20 years. Maureen busies herself by cleaning and laundering every single thing she can get her hands on. And Harold sits and sits and sits.

Until, one day, Harold receives a letter from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy. He hasn’t heard from her in 20 years, and she writes to say good-bye. She is dying of cancer in a hospice way up in Scotland, over 600 miles away. Harold writes Queenie a brief note, gets up to mail it at the corner postbox, and then, well, he decides to keep walking.

Harold realizes that Queenie deserves more than a brief note dumped in the mail. Queenie deserves her goodbye in person. And so Harold, with only his windbreaker on his back, starts to walk to Queenie.

His journey is a beautifully written picture of life. He walks alone, and with others. He remembers the past — both the wonderful and the terrible. He wishes he had been a better father to his son, David, whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. And he realizes that he failed Queenie, who did him a huge favor 20 years ago, and he never got a chance to thank her. He has wonderful days when he believes that if he keeps walking, he’ll keep Queenie alive. And then he has days when he more or less loses his mind and feels he’d be better off dead.

While walking, Harold changes from a quiet, reserved, solitary man, to a more outgoing and trusting sort. He relies on the kindness of strangers to get him along on his journey. My favorite was the Slovakian doctor with the tendency to swear.

Meanwhile, Maureen spends her time thinking about the past as well. With the help of her neighbor, the widower Rex, she realizes that Harold isn’t the bad guy that she’s made him out to be for the past 20 years, and that she is equally to blame for their falling out. Most importantly, she realizes that she misses him and loves him.

The story and the writing reminded me a lot of another favorite, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. They both presented a slice of life in England for people of a certain age (Harold completes the majority of his walk wearing a tie — how very British!), and made me wish I was over in England on vacation, driving along Harold’s route to see the beauty as he saw it.

The ending drove me to tears, as mentioned. My memories of hospice were a bit overwhelming, and Rachel Joyce’s description of Queenie’s final home was almost too much for me to take. But I’m so glad I read it and want to thank all the Cannonballers out there who reviewed it first.

You can read more of my reviews on my blog.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR5 review #13: The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

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.

Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #18: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce



It doesn’t sound gripping. A retired pensioner decides to walk over 600 miles to visit a dying ex work colleague. But if you don’t fall in love with Harold Fry, then you have no soul. Read the full review here