The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. Published 2012 by Random House.
after a spate of dark and heavy books, I was asking around on Twitter
one night for some what-to-read-next suggestions. One of my Twitter
friends mentioned a book she loved, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold
Fry, by Rachel Joyce, which had been longlisted
for this year's Booker Prize and a galley of which happened to be
nestled in my piles of books somewhere. I'd dipped into it earlier in
the year and was interested enough to keep it around, but this
recommendation was enough to get it out of the pile and into my hands.
I really loved it.
One day Harold Fry gets a letter in the mail from a nurse caring for his old friend Queenie Hennessey.
Queenie and Harold had worked together at a brewery; Harold was an
introverted salesman, a loner in a jocular, hyper masculine culture, and
Queenie the lone woman. They share a secret, a secret of Harold's; a
long time ago, she did him an unfathomable favor, and now, as she lay
dying from cancer, Harold feels a need to see her, to thank her, to make
sure she's okay, so, without really meaning to, he starts walking the
many miles from his home to her bedside.
walk progresses, Joyce tells the story of Harold and his wife Maureen, a
late-middle-aged couple whose marriage has basically disintegrated.
Harold is a good man but emotionally stunted by abuse and abandonment by
his own parents; Maureen had expectations for her life that were
different from the way things turned out. Their relationship with their
son David is at the heart of their troubles as a couple, and their story
is explored gradually and quietly as Harold embarks on his
Joyce alternates her narrative between
Harold's walk and Maureen's own, private journey at home, as she
reevaluates herself, her marriage, her husband and her son. The past and
the present intermingle as Harold and Maureen make their way through
terrain interior and exterior. Maureen starts off in denial of what's
going on; she tells her neighbor that Harold is inside. Harold likewise
has no idea what he's gotten himself into and finds himself beset by
injury, hunger, loneliness and cold. He tells people what he's doing as
he goes and soon finds himself to be a kind of celebrity, while Maureen
actually starts to miss her husband and rethink their relationship.
found the story, which is actually quite dark, to be moving but what I
really admire about the book is how tightly it's structured. Everything
is a metaphor for everything else; Harold's physical journey mirrors his
psychic journey, his physical injuries and lack of preparation mirror
his development from childhood to adulthood. The lack of affection and
direction from his parents left him unprepared for adult relationships,
for parenthood, for success at work. Now that part of his life is over
and he has to figure out how to face his remaining years, what remains
of his marriage and his understanding of his only child. And he's
hanging it all on the success or failure of the visit with Queenie.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has the potential to be a big success with lots of different kinds of readers. It's a natural fit for people who liked Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson, or Natasha Solomon's Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English but
it's a good deal more melancholy than those books. A meditation on
grief, on what it means to succeed or fail, and on what it means to grow
up and love other people, it's a wonderful and wonderfully engrossing
story of an all-too-human man and his struggle to accept himself and
what life has dealt him.
FTC Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.