Books

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry

By Rachel Joyce.

Have you ever set off on a small errand that became the start of something else entirely? Harold Fry did just that, when a short walk, in his yachting shoes, to the post box at the end of the road he lived in became a journey of over 600 miles, covering the length of Britain and lasting for weeks and weeks.

Harold Fry had been retired for around 6 months, from his job of 40 years at the brewery, when he received a letter that would change everything. The address on the pink envelope was written in biro, in clumsy handwriting he did not recognise. When he opened it up it was neatly typed from a colleague and friend he had not seen, or thought of, for more than 20 years.

Queenie Hennessy was dying of cancer, in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and had written to Harold to say goodbye. Harold did what most of us would probably have done in that situation, wrote a letter in reply. On his way to post the letter his few brief, quickly penned words began to seem inadequate so when he go to the post box he did what most of us would not do, he just kept walking, on his way to Queenie in the hospice at Berwick-upon-Tweed.

I’m not sure that Harold ever really saw his walk as a pilgrimage, that was the opinion of others, but it was certainly more than just a physical journey which it is questionable if he ever really understands himself how he started. Harold’s ultimate journey took both himself and his wife Maureen, whom he had left at home when he set out, down long, unexplored paths of spiritual and emotional rediscovery of feelings almost forgotten with time.

When Harold’s walk makes it into first a local paper and is then picked up by national news coverage, Harold is joined by a disparate bunch of ‘pilgrims’ some of whom have their own reasons and ulterior motives for coming along, not all of those reasons seeming to be honourable or, honest. Unfortunately for Harold, this company, in both senses of the word, is not entirely welcome and just serves to make him feel he is loosing even more control of events than he already had lost.

I suspect that some readers of Rachel Joyce’s novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry will find that there will be elements of Harold and Maureen’s life together, that parallel feelings and situations, if not events, in their own lives. Older, more mature married people, who have been together a long time, may even find some of these parallels a a little bit uncomfortable to read, raising questions about their own relationships but then isn’t that something a good story will do anyway; make you think and question, not simply entertain?

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a book that continually had me wanting to turn the page, to see what pitfall might befall Harold next. Rachel Joyce by taking us along with Harold on his journey, managed to take me along with him; an armchair pilgrim, if you will. The book certainly has some sentimental elements but avoids the trap of over sentimentality.

Rachel’s novel was inspired by the loss of her own father to cancer. She writes it in a gentle, easy going style which is a bit deceptive as we see tome of the events and emotions it deals with. Her descriptions, in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, of death and the emotion of dealing with grief are both brilliant and beautiful in their simplicity and plain language conveying in a few words something other authors have have often struggled to convey. Her description of religion, Harold is not a believer, is something that should give all the religious ‘clubs’ pause for thought, about the way that they are perceived by those who are not members.

“He [Harold] didn’t object to other people believing in God,
but it was like being in a place where everyone knew a set of
rules and he didn’t.” Joyce, on Harold Fry’s view of religion.

In all the books I have read over my 55 plus years on this earth, I can still count the number of books I have read more than once on the fingers of one hand, this book is quite likely to be added to that select few. In my previous book reviews, whilst I have given my opinion, for good or ill on the books, I have not made a recommendation. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the first book I shall finish a review by recommending you read.

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