Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce book cover
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) by Rachel Joyce is the understated story of one man’s journey from one end of the country to the other. Harold Fry is an unassuming man who has fashioned for himself a comfortable if mundane existence and a settled retirement, which he shares with his wife, Maureen. Over breakfast one morning, Harold receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessey. Not having spoken for twenty years, the letter comes as a surprise to Harold, and he is saddened to learn that Queenie is suffering from terminal cancer. Setting out to post his reply, Harold finds that his few short words feel wholly inadequate and, though ill-prepared for any sort of trip, he sets out to walk the length of the country, Dorset to Berwick-upon-Tweed, to visit Queenie and “save her”. As Harold travels to reach his dying friend, giving her something to live for in the process, he discovers much about himself and others he encounters along the way.

Harold is a man who has let his life drift by, never taking responsibility for making a change and never doing anything noteworthy. His colleagues barely noticed him, his wife exchanges only pleasantries with him, and his relationship with his son causes him a lot of pain. The stagnancy of life and the suffocating normality of a stale and troubled marriage provide a strong starting point from which to identify with Harold. Indeed, Joyce’s understated portrayal of the marriage is one of the novel’s strong points, and this is but one of the deceptively heavy themes with which the novel deals. To wrap meditations on love, death, fear, and materialism, amongst others, into such a neat package is an achievement.

As the reader learns more about Harold it becomes clear that he has failed to take grasp of his life, that he has allowed the events of most importance to him to evolve around him without taking part in their shaping. Pain and loss, both great small, run through his life and there is a pathos hidden behind his mask of respectability that will resonate with the unfulfilled. At times it’s hard to tell whether Harold is walking to Queenie or away from his own life. Perhaps he is doing both, perhaps it’s immaterial; the important thing is that he is walking. Along the journey, Harold shares his story with others who in turn share a little of themselves with him. Harold soon comes to realise that beneath the surface everyone carries heartache but that there is something more, and these chance encounters help him along his way, restoring some of his faith in humanity and helping him to reconsider his own life. Harold, along with the reader, soon discovers the value of blind faith, and the imperfection of human hope.

The quest or pilgrimage is an oft told story, but here it is used not as the framework for a sweeping and broad tale, but a quiet, personal story. The central premise, extraordinary but not fantastical, is good and the book starts strongly with Harold striding out on his journey. However, as the story progresses it begins to lose shape a little, with some passages not finding the mark and new characters a little flat. The pacing of the journey itself is a little off, with certain accelerations which, as large amounts of ground are covered by Harold within a few pages, can feel a little disorienting to the reader. The book most noticeably loses its way when Harold begins to accumulate a band of followers who try to turn what is a very personal journey into something else, into what they think it should be – most notably, a commercial and promotional exercise. This section becomes tedious and really only serves to detract and distract from the book’s simple, sweet story; satire perhaps not Joyce’s strong suit. But, barring this section, the novel is pitched pretty well as the quiet meditation that it intends to be.

Joyce’s writing is plain and very readable, providing a smooth read without any flourishes. Harold’s walk is reminiscent of the scene in Forrest Gump where the eponymous hero decides one day to run from coast to coast, and keep on running, but here, thankfully, the saccharine sweet sentimentality is kept at bay, with Joyce only occasionally slipping into mawkishness. In keeping with this fact, the climax is fittingly reserved, and it’s clear that the journey is of, by some way, greater significance than the destination.

One slight concern is Maureen – Harold’s abandoned wife. She fills this role sufficiently but is far from fully-formed as a character. Perhaps it’s not her story, but somehow this creates an imbalance somewhere at the heart of the novel. Altogether though, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is understated, creating a simpleness that feels true to life. Harold's unshakeable faith is quiet but poignant, and there's no high drama here, no melodramatic confrontations or passionate embraces. This is a simple story of a man finding the way back to his wife through a roundabout route, traversing a tragedy that pushed them apart.

One suspects that the novel will appeal most to those who have a life to look back on, who share a perspective with the central characters, and know what it means to have relationships evolve around oneself, sometimes beyond one’s control. Having written a large number of radio plays, this is Rachel Joyce’s first novel (which in fact started as a radio play she had written for her father), and is a promising debut and an enjoyable read.

I quite enjoyed this - it's understated and manages to rein in the sentimentality just enough for me. The plot is a little soggy in the middle, but it's not a huge problem. This featured on the long-list for the Booker 2012 - praise indeed.


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3 comments:

David Nolan (David73277) said...

This book was indeed on the 2012 Booker long list, but was it not 2011 when that prize focused on "readability"? 2012 was more about a return to what one might expect from this prize, including at least one highly experimental novel on the short-list and a winner that, though excellent, might have been considered safe by comparison.

You suspect "that the novel will appeal most to those who have a life to look back on." I can see why you say that, but I don't think you have to have reached retirement in order to sympathise with a character who suddenly concludes he has never fully lived. Even before the financial crisis had such an impact on our lives, there were plenty of people in their twenties starting to talk of a 'quarter life crisis'. Moreover, one surely does not have to have things in common with the characters in books in order to enjoy their story? If this were necessary, just imagine the sort of books that dull, middle-managers like Harold would be reading.

Matthew Selwyn said...

David - thanks, for finding your way over here from Twitter :)

You are of course right, I don't keep track of years very well and it was 2011 when the Booker went for readability.

I don't think you have to be of Harold's generation to empathise with him or enjoy the book - I'm probably proof of that myself. I do think that some books are better suited to particular audiences. I remember having this conversation with a friend when I suggested that The Outsider (L'etranger) was a book that would appeal most to young men. In neither that case nor this one would I say they are exlusively for one particular audience, but that they are perhaps of particular interest to that demographic.

Thanks for stopping by David - enjoyed your comment!

Matthew Selwyn said...

*reference to the Booker and readability now struck off, thanks to David's astute correction.