Harold Fry is 65, retired and living on the South Coast. Although he and his wife, Maureen, still inhabit the same house, they can hardly be said to inhabit the same marriage. We may not know as the novel begins what it is has that has driven them apart over the past twenty years but we fairly soon come to realise that it has to have something to do with their son David, to whom Maureen speaks on a regular basis while Harold clearly has no contact whatsoever. All in all, Harold’s life is not one that anybody would envy and the future holds little of any promise.
And then Harold receives a letter from an old colleague, Queenie Hennessy, telling him that she is in a hospice in Berwick-on-Tweed and wishing him goodbye. Stricken with the guilt we all feel when we realise that we have let someone slip from our lives, Harold writes to Queenie and sets out to walk to the nearest post box. When he reaches the post box he decides to walk on to the next one, and the next one and then the post office and then………
Harold is walking to Berwick-on-Tweed to save Queenie.
The story is prefaced by the Pilgrim’s Song which begins Who would true valour see and like Bunyan’s pilgrim Harold meets with trials, tribulations and a whole variety of travelling companions along the way. As the media learn of what he is doing crowds gather to cheer on his progress and at times his journey is taken over by people whose motives are less altruistic than his but still Harold walks on to save Queenie and, although he doesn’t realise it, to save himself as well.
I loved this book. I loved the kind, gentle soul that is Harold, a man heart-broken by the way his life, his marriage and his relationship with his son have turned out, not realising how damaged he has been by his own childhood experiences. I loved the quality of the writing too. Here is Harold in a restaurant not long after he has set out. He has been thinking about family holidays when David was young when his train of thought is interrupted by a couple who have previously been full of advice about walking gear.
They had raised their voices. Harold wanted to get away, but there appeared to be no safe slice of silence in which he might stand and excuse himself.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is Rachel Joyce’s first novel although she has been writing radio drama for sometime. I’m not certain if it actually is the case, but the structure of the book suggests that it might have started life as a play itself. Each of the encounters would make a neat scene and the changes between locations, moving back and forth from the walk to Hampshire, would create a precise aural syntax for the listener. This isn’t a criticism, simply a comment on the shaping of the story and in fact the short sections make it a comfortable read. I hope this won’t be the last novel Joyce writes. I’ve enjoyed her radio plays, but moving into prose has allowed her to explore emotion and motivation in far greater depth and I can’t wait to see where this new medium takes her.