Up for review today is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. It’s easy to see why it was nominated as part of the Man Booker longlist, and why it has become an international bestseller. Despite their flaws, the characters strike a chord with the reader, and it’s worth following the path all the way to the end.
Title: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Random House, 2013
One day, Harold Fry, an unassuming man who recently retired from a local brewery, gets a letter from a woman he worked with in the past. Her name is Queenie Hennessy, and it’s been 20 years since they saw each other. She left her job at the brewery under mysterious circumstances, and although the details aren’t revealed at first, it becomes clear that she and Harold have some kind of past. Queenie, it turns out, is dying of cancer and she’s written to say good-bye. When Harold sits down to write a letter, his words seem inadequate because there is unresolved business between the two of them. Nonetheless, he finishes the letter and sets off for the post office.
But instead of dropping off the letter, Harold Fry keeps on walking. As long as he walks, he tells himself, Queenie will not die.
And when she finds out that her old friend is on the way to see her, Queenie Hennessy does not die. She hangs on, and as Harold continues his six-hundred-mile pilgrimage with little more than a light jacket and yachting shoes, he finally has time to look back on his life and its shortcomings. As he walks, he examines his roles as husband, father, and friend – and this allows him to become someone everybody, including himself, can respect. His journey turns out to be both mundane and marvelous, and the path he follows through the English countryside has a twist or two along the way.
After following this antihero on his unlikely journey, I was glad that author Rachel Joyce let me walk six hundred miles in Harold Fry’s shoes, and I found a new spring in my own step. This gentle and quirky story is about more than just lost love and squandered opportunities, however. As Janet Maslin of The New York Times writes, “It is about all the wonderful everyday things Harold discovers through the mere process of putting one foot in front of the other.” For me, Ron Charles of The Washington Post sums it up nicely when he described this book as a “cause for celebration” and says that Joyce “has a lovely sense of the possibilities of redemption” and that “she’s cleared space where miracles are still possible.” If you haven’t read it yet, put The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry on your list.