The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
Published in paperback by Black Swan
3rd January 2013
There are only a small number of novels which have utterly, utterly captivated me from the very beginning, and this is one of the very best of them. Harold Fry has recently retired from his job and is not finding it easy to adapt to life at home with his long-suffering wife Maureen in their South Coast home. Their long marriage is no longer a happy one and they are more or less estranged from their son David.
Their everyday humdrum life changes dramatically when Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessey, an old colleague of his, letting him know that she is terminally ill with cancer. The reserved and rather taciturn Harold is nonplussed and agonises over how to write a suitable reply to her. He settles for writing a short, rather bald note expressing sadness and tells his wife he is just walking to the end of the road to post the letter and won't be long.
When he gets to the post box at the end of the road, he finds he cannot post the letter he has written, and walks to the next post box, to buy himself time to think and maybe compose a better reply. He ends up spending weeks walking all the way from his home to Queenie's Hospice in Berwick upon Tweed instead, willing her to live long enough so he can see her one last time and say goodbye in person.
It really is a pilgrimage of sorts, in which Harold has chance to dig deep and think hard about his life, his marriage, his work and his relationship with his son. Where did everything go wrong, and is there any hope at all of salvaging anything worthwhile from his marriage? Just who is he anyway? What happened to the Harold who had such dreams for the future?
And what about Maureen, left behind with no initial warning or explanation? How does she cope with her abandonment ? She too has time and space to think and ask questions, to re-assess her life without Harold and what she wants to do next.
This is in turns a desperately sad yet life-affirming and hopeful book, with remarkable insights into faith, the human condition, people's secret lives and hopes. Harold meets people he would never normally talk to, let alone spend time with and grow to trust, and at the end of his pilgrimage, he is a man changed for the better.
To say more would be to spoil the pleasure of reading this immensely moving, heartbreaking yet joyous book, but if you get a chance, consider reading it. It is memorable and will become a well-deserved classic.