” Again Harold left the phone booth, wishing he could make Maureen understand. But for years they had been in a place where language had no significance. She only had to look at him and she was wrenched to the past. Small words were exchanged and they were safe. They hovered over the surface of what could never be said, because that was unfathomable and would never be bridged. ” (Ch.7, p.70)
Rachel Joyce’s debut novel begins with the arrival of an unexpected letter and an impulsive act. Harold Fry is a timid, reticent man who has recently retired. When he discovers that a formal friend and colleague is seriously ill, he sets out with the intention of posting her a letter—but ends up walking 600 miles from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed. As if imparted with a magical will power, Harold believes in some way his journey will help Queenie Hennessey live.
The truth is, we don’t talk. Not any more. Not properly. The morning he left, I was nagging him about white bread and the jam, Rex. The jam. It’s no wonder he walked off. It hasn’t been a marriage for twenty years. (Ch.14, p.134)
Despite the troubling blisters popping up on his feet and leather biting his ankle, Harold walks and walks, placing one foot before the other. Without maps and only yachting shoes, he sets out on this unusual and ambitious journey, fueled by this determination. Soon we know that his journey is also one that is inward, a voyage to self-discovery, as he dredges up old memories that plague him. His marriage to Maureen has been non-existence over the last twenty years—for reasons Joyce not ready to reveal. His son died from overdose with drugs with alcohol.
In order to succeed he must remain true to the feeling that had inspired in the first place. It didn’t matter that other people would do it in a different way; in fact this was inevitable. (Ch.18, p.179)
Most of the novel follows Harold’s three-month walking excursion, with a touch of some allegorical overtones and elements of parable. Along the way he encounters many different people—kind, eclectic, weird, bemused, apathetic, and opportunistic. Joyce handles these run-ins in an uneven manner. Harold’s chance meeting with a film star and assorted media personnel are more coarse and less elegant than her tender description of the kind Solvakian doctor who tends to Harold and the young girl in the gas station who inadvertently makes him believe in himself.
She can be making a pot of tea, and suddenly the solitariness of her single tea would make her want to scream. She never told Rex, nut on those occasions she returned to the bedroom, drew the curtains, and, lying under the duvet, she wailed. (Ch.20, p.187)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is emotionally charged right from the beginning. The people are stuck-up and unhappy, carrying the weight of real life. Neither Harold nor the reader fully understands why he started the journey, other than that he must keep going. The story is laced with loneliness, with life’s inevitable small disappointments; it reminds us how we can often take what we have for granted. The conclusion comes with an unexpected emotional blow that renews a withering marriage. But the most inspiring about this book is Harold’s pure sense of hope and expectation to right the wrong.
286 pp. Random House. Paper. [Read/
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