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Book review – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce – 4 1/2 Stars

Book cover of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Book cover of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Harold Fry was unwanted by his mother. She was a disappointed woman who couldn’t believe that the young man she had married before WWII was the same as the shell of a man with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who returned to her. His father drank and his mother wished she was somewhere else and as a result:

the boy learned quickly that the best way to get along in life was to keep a low profile; to appear absent even when present

He desperately wanted her caresses but the closest he could get was a smile so he learnt to tell jokes to earn those smiles. Watching my own children and knowing their huge needs for attention, love and physical contact it hurt me to read about Harold’s home life both before and after his mother abandoned him. There is a bitterly poignant moment where Harold remembers finding his son in a pool of his own vomit and recalls the same with his father due to alcoholism.

Starting from his youth the reader feels empathy towards Harold and wishes for a better life for him. From an unhappy childhood to a heady courtship and other-worldly love, Harold finds himself married to Maureen and gradually their relationship deteriorates to the point that for the past 20 yeras Maureen has found it difficult not to put Harold in his place:

You can’t save people from cancer Harold. Not unless you are a surgeon. And you can’t even slice bread without making a mess. This is ridiculous.

Harold realises that he is co-dependent on his wife even though they no longer share any flicker of intimacy:

It occurred to him that it was Maureen who (did everything).. even found the nursing home for his father. And it begged the question – that if she was in effect Harold, ‘Then who am I?’

When Harold receives a letter from a friend (Queenie) who he hasn’t seen or heard from in 20 years he embarks on an unlikely pilgrimage to walk the length of England from the very south in Devon to the border with Scotland. He is totally unprepared and simply doesn’t stop walking after posting Queenie a letter, despite not having even a change of clothes, toothbrush or bottle of water with him, and wearing yachting shoes. The inadequate shoes take on a role in the story of Harold’s penitence and I suppose that ties into the use of Pilgrimage in the title of the book. Along the way Harold slowly remembers what he loves about his frosty wife and pines for the warmth that they once shared. He also reminisces about his youth, their early marriage, the childhood of his son, and his job and friendship with Queenie. It is through these reminiscences that the reader learns the source of the rift between Harold and Maureen and also the source of the deep sadness in Harold. While reading about the decline of their marriage I was reminded of the need to treat my own husband with care, courtesy and respect at all times.

Along his journey Harold meets an assortment of people each with surprising stories that they share with Harold (e.g. the shoe licking was quite a surprise). Some of these people inspire Harold and others drag him down but all of them add to the rich texture of this masterly novel. Harold is a truly lovely character and it was a great pleasure to share his 600+ mile journey with him. The end of the novel left me crying and wishing I could spend more time with Harold. I had no inkling of the revelation about the source of Harold, Maureen and Queenie’s rift and it was refreshing to be surprised by a book.

It seems to me that there’s been a proliferation of novels that centre on middle-aged and older men. I’m not sure if this is a true trend or if it’s just where my meandering reading has led me of late but what I love about Harold is that even though he’s led a life of pain and difficulty he’s a genuinely lovely person, unlikely the protagonists of Tim Winton! At the least it’s the 2nd excellent book I’ve read in as many years that centres on an older man that sets off on an unpremeditated journey both physically and metaphorically (the other being the delightful story: The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared). I wonder if it’s Rachel Joyce’s background as a radio playwright that enabled her to write such a lovable character. I would like to finish this brief review by thoroughly recommending The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce to everyone (it was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize) and sharing a few quotes:

A stranger who gave Harold some water and afternoon tea when he stumbled outside her house offered this truism:

…it never ceases to amaze me how difficult the things that are supposed to be instinctive really are.

It is the part of the introvert (Harold) to feel simultaneously connected and disconnected and this line resonated with me for I’ve spent many a moment feeling the same way:

There was so much out there, so much life, going about its daily business of getting by, of suffering and fighting, and not knowing he was sitting up there, watching. Again he felt in a profound way that he was both inside and outside what he saw; that he was connected, and passing through. He was both a part of things, and not.

It made him feel…that even in the midst of them (his followers) he was unknown.

Along his journey Harold has to learn to accept kindnesses from strangers and having lived a childhood bereft of kindness and a loveless middle age, Harold is unprepared to accept help until it becomes impossible not to:

It was as much of a gift to receive as it was to give, requiring as it did both courage and humility.

At one point in his journey the book takes a strange turn as Harold is rocketed to fame after unwittingly confiding in a journalist. Suddenly Harold’s journey changes from one of solitude punctuated by occasional human interaction and reminiscences to being cluttered by unlikable characters with dubious motives. I’m mystified by why Joyce chose to do this and it weakened my enjoyment of the story and didn’t seem to add much. Anyway, one of the new journeyers slips into step with Harold and asks why he is withdrawn and he tells her but realises that she doesn’t take his comments in the way they are offered because she is too caught up in her own troubles and I feel this is often true in conversation with strangers and acquaintances, that the dance that makes up beautiful conversation is unlikely to proceed until empathy and trust are present:

They walked on in silence. He wished he had not mentioned his doubts. It was clear she had no room for them.

To the friend who recommended I read this gem I say thank you (unfortunately I don’t remember who you are because I had to wait months to borrow the book from the library!).


5 comments on “Book review – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce – 4 1/2 Stars

  1. Gwen Tuinman
    December 20, 2013

    You are definitely on to something in your comment about the number of novels whose protagonists are middle-aged and older men. There is a recently coined genre called “Boomer Lit”.

    • strivetoengage
      December 21, 2013

      Ah yes Boomer Lit is the perfect name for it. I hadn’t heard of it but I assumed it was due to authors trying to suit the newly retired reading market. Thanks for letting me know!

  2. abandonedriddle
    December 21, 2013

    Such a beautiful review.

  3. Pingback: Book Review – A Man Called Ove – 5 Stars | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on December 19, 2013 by in fiction and tagged , , , , .
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