REVIEW: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
A pilgrim’s progress
When first we meet him, there is absolutely nothing about Harold Fry that makes him even mildly interesting. He is the quintessential “Man on the Clapham Omnibus” of which the English legal system is so fond: perfectly coloured in shades of beige and grey, occupying space like a lump of bread dough that takes on the shape of its surroundings without actually impacting them in any meaningful way.
That is, until one day, Harold receives a note from an acquaintance, Queenie Hennessy. Queenie, who was an accountant at the same brewery where Harold worked almost all his life and from where he has recently retired, has been an absence in his life for 20 years. We don’t quite understand how or why she sparks something inside Harold — it’s not prosaic enough to be love, although we understand that there are some powerful emotions stirred up by her note — but her letter, which explains that she is suffering from terminal cancer (and has only a short, indeterminate time to live) in a hospice, is enough to send Harold Fry into veritable conniptions.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is just that: an unlikely pilgrimage that takes Harold away from his wife of four decades and his home, and sends him from Kingsbridge on the southern coast of England to Berwick Upon Tweed located near the Scottish border. Rachel Joyce starts her novel with Harold trying to figure out how best to respond to Queenie’s note as he munches on his morning tea and toast. As he drafts and redrafts version upon version of a reply, walking past multiple opportunities to post a letter back to her, he decides after a conversation with a girl in a garage — in perhaps the first act of spontaneity to have crossed his mind in many decades — to go visit her in person.
“I am on my way,” he writes. “All you have to do is wait. Because I am going to save you, you see. I will keep walking and you must keep living.”
The first intimation that Maureen, Harold’s wife, has of this plan is when she receives a telephone call from Harold as he’s on his sojourn. Deeply puzzled at her husband’s uncharacteristic behaviour, the shrewish Maureen finds herself at a loss for both words and deeds. The only person with whom she discusses this is David, their brilliant and curiously absent son, about whose history we learn as Harold crosses the 600 miles between Devon and Berwick Upon Tweed. As Harold plods across the land in a modern-day interpretation of the quest for the Holy Grail, we gradually discover more and more about his past life and his decidedly platonic history with Queenie.
These two life stories unfold as both Harold and Maureen try to come to terms with this sudden change in circumstances. Forced by solitude to find company in his own memories, Harold starts coming to term with his past: abandonment, both literal and metaphorical, by his parents; the roots of Maureen’s bitterness towards him, and his role as a father to an irascible and ineffable son. Concurrent with the blooming of his own insights are those of Maureen, who engages on a parallel emotional journey and confronts the reality that she has buried under the corpses of her own expectations and disappointments.
Although Harold’s pilgrimage is mostly carried out in isolation, he is never really alone. The people he encounters — and there are many of them — react in various ways to his quest: some encourage him, some call him a fool, but almost all uniformly unburden themselves to him. And with this come their own acts of kindness: the Eastern European physician who washes Harold’s bruised and battered feet before she goes off to her menial day-job; the famous actor who despite his frustration with people who name their dogs after him and a generally surly attitude, offers Harold his car and driver to reach Queenie sooner … well, you can draw your own Christ parallels, but there are certainly several moments of redemption and faith that Joyce scatters through her novel.
As news of Harold’s journey spreads and the media get wind of it, Harold attracts a group of followers. This is one of the more fun — and disappointing — parts of the novel, in which Joyce pokes holes in modern society’s obsession with celebrity culture: Harold has ostensibly talked a man off a bridge! Queenie is his true love, not Maureen! Harold is secretly insane! There are aliens who have driven Harold mad! (OK, the last one, not so much.) Joyce’s experiment with Harold as a Christ figure is a clever bit of religious satire, but all through it readers may find themselves waiting for her to get done with it already and get back to Harold’s introspective crusade.
You would think this surprising, given that most of Harold’s tale ostensibly involves blisters, bad weather, and a certain amount of absurdity. But the gentle breeze of triviality and absurdity are what make the novel; rather than detracting from the pain that underpins the novel, Joyce’s comments only underline it further. There is never the sense that she is interested in mocking Harold or making him into a caricature, despite the harsh realities that at 65 his walking prowess extends to about the end of his driveway, that he has no changes of clothes, no mobile telephone or proper walking shoes. If Queenie’s life were actually linked to Harold’s capability to complete this walk, no one would be offering good odds.
But this is the joy of Joyce’s novel (despite physical pain, cancer, addiction, alcoholism, marital strife and other such pleasant things that run throughout the book): the ridiculousness of Harold’s walk is worth celebrating. He is Eliot’s Prufrock as written by John Kennedy O’Toole; daring not only to eat a peach, but also demanding that the blasted mermaids serenade him at the top of their lungs. And this is utterly lovely in a very basic way: by being so wonderfully simple and impractical, Harold redeems the very idea of pilgrimage, bringing it back to the wonder of hope, prayer, and transcendence. Joyce is not a blind optimist; she refuses to shy away from the brutality of disease and age, but she is also a clear believer in redemption of a quiet sort. Melodrama has no place in this quiet, Quixotic tale, but miracles do, and Joyce is both understated and bold in her narrative.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is whimsical without being twee; uplifting without being precious. That alone is unusual, but much of the novel’s delight comes from Joyce’s juxtaposition of idealism and reality. Harold walks hundreds of miles, sometimes in circles, and sometimes in a straight line, exceeding any expectations that either he (or we) could have of his own abilities. And in Maureen, Harold’s wife, whose story leads to redemption and acceptance of a different sort, we see very clearly that sometimes you don’t have to actually step out of the house in order to travel to a different point. The journey, as Joyce implies, can sometimes matter much more than the actual destination.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
By Rachel Joyce
296pp. Price not listed