The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Release Date: July 24, 2012
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
Publisher's Summary: Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessey is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.
Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.
Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit of youth and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him-allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.
And then there’s the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessey.
A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise- and utterly irresistible- storyteller.
My Thoughts: The Harold Fry who leaves his home in Kingsbridge one morning is vastly different from the one who arrives in Berwick-upon-Tweed several months later. His days on the road, walking more than 600 miles to save Queenie, provide him ample time to think about himself, his life (past and present) and his family. Parts of his past which he’s forgotten come to the surface, often due to encounters with the myriad of people he meets on his trek. Most of these people surprise Harold with their kindness and willingness to help. His journey awakens him to much about life and people of which he was unaware. His mind, closed for most of his life, is opened to so much that is new. In a similar way Harold’s journey reminds him of what matters in life, author Rachel Joyce’s captivating debut gently reminds readers to remember who and what matters in their own lives.
Harold’s journey to Queenie begins with a misunderstanding. During a conversation with a stranger, Harold believes her vague answer to a question means something it doesn’t. Before she can explain, Harold’s gone, off to begin his walk. This is very fitting as so much of Harold’s life is peppered with misunderstandings and miscommunications, though very few as fortuitous as this one. The worst of them, however, have reverberated for years, shaping the man Harold has become: quiet and reserved, lacking in confidence, unsure about what he thinks and believes. The few times he is sure, he is unable to assert himself. As such, the people in his world have been deprived of a caring, sweet and good-natured man.
Some of the misunderstandings in Harold’s life caused a great deal of anguish, pain and grief, leading ultimately to a profound silence in his marriage. Harold doesn’t confide in Maureen when he decides to walk the 600 miles to Queenie. In truth, the couple hasn’t spoken about anything significant in years. Harold loves Maureen but fears she’ll scoff at his idea (or worse) and destroy the fragile ground on which his confidence in the plan rests. As a result, Harold doesn’t return home to properly prepare for his journey but heads to Berwick wearing yachting shoes, a light jacket without food, drink or other supplies. Harold doesn’t initially consider the impact his decision to walk 600 miles for another woman, (one he doesn’t know very well and hasn’t spoken with in 20 years, no less), might have on his relationship with Maureen. In the 40-plus years they’ve been together, their relationship has become complex and confusing, which is not unusual. Ms. Joyce has created such a sympathetic and likable character in Harold that we hope he will learn to talk to Maureen.
Maureen. Harold’s wife, is, on the surface, an irritable, somewhat bitter and angry character. Her childhood and early life were simple and easy. Intelligent, she excelled in school and showed great potential. Although her parents weren’t impressed with Harold, he made Maureen laugh and lit up her world from the first time they met. This isn’t the Maureen we meet in the opening pages. This seems to make her at odds with who she is and who we might think she should be. But at the end, Joyce reveals the events that have changed Maureen, and we gain insights that provide explanations as to why her outlook and actions are so seemingly complex.
Many books center around a ‘journey’ but Harold’s differs from many in that there’s no fairytale aspect to it; it’s a period of self-reflection during which Harold makes peace with much of what’s happened in his life. He challenges himself to do things that make him uncomfortable, even scare him. His journey also allows Maureen time to reflect on herself, her life with Harold and where things got all twisted and complicated. Harold’s journey ends when he reaches Queenie. It’s relatively brief, but Harold learns more about himself, others and life during this time than he has throughout all the years he‘s been alive. The mental and spiritual journey Harold‘s been on while walking, in addition to Maureen’s own journey, has the potential to continue for years, giving them the ability to discover more about themselves, each other and the world around them and enjoy the experiences.
Ms. Joyce has written a fascinating book about a riveting experience lived by a simple man that is so profound it has the potential to change his life in small as well as significant ways. And though it seems this book would be layered in pathos, there is a surprisingly healthy amount of humor throughout, keeping the book from becoming weighted down in gravity. This book is also a stunning debut for any of us who’ve stumbled while trying to navigate our path through life and found ourselves confused about our relationships with the people we love. Ms. Joyce gently reminds us about what truly matters in life. Harold was sleepwalking through life, something he’d been doing for too many years. A letter encouraged Harold to choose a goal. His goal required him to make a plan. Harold’s plan enabled him to discover the beauty in the world and its people. Harold woke up and actually saw life for the first in a long time. And Harold laughed again. Ms Joyce encourages us to reflect on our lives as Harold and Maureen have, to go on a pilgrimage of sorts and celebrate what we discover about life, others and ourselves.
I highly recommend The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry to everyone. This mesmerizing book made me smile, laugh, well up with tears and, finally, cry. The world around me melted away as I read and I lost myself in it’s delightful words. This is a book you do not want to miss!
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and to Randomn House for an ARC copy of this book.