The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
By: Rachel Joyce
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
Recently retired, sweet, emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his passivity by a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old friend, who he hasn’t heard from in twenty years. She has written to say she is in hospice and wanted to say goodbye. Leaving his tense, bitter wife Maureen to her chores, Harold intends a quick walk to the corner mailbox to post his reply but instead, inspired by a chance encounter, he becomes convinced he must deliver his message in person to Queenie–who is 600 miles away–because as long as he keeps walking, Harold believes that Queenie will not die. So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or cell phone, one of the most endearing characters in current fiction begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside. Along the way, strangers stir up memories–flashbacks, often painful, from when his marriage was filled with promise and then not, of his inadequacy as a father, and of his shortcomings as a husband. Ironically, his wife Maureen, shocked by her husband’s sudden absence, begins to long for his presence. Is it possible for Harold and Maureen to bridge the distance between them? And will Queenie be alive to see Harold arrive at her door?
I think it was the title and the book cover that caught my attention. It sounded like such a quirky read a la Forrest Gump with Harold Fry’s unexpected trip to visit his sick, old friend. It caught my attention again short afterwards when it was longlisted in 2012 for the Man Booker Prize, which added to my curiosity. This book had been sitting on my Kobo for the past year or so, and it was only recently that I got around to starting it.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a quiet read, a glimpse into the seemingly ordinary lives of Harold and Maureen Fry, even as Harold decides to embark on his long walk to visit Queenie Hennessy. The story is pretty straightforward as Harold walks along the 600 mile route, the narrative occasionally turning over the Maureen to see how she is coping, and can be a little slow at times, but there is a purpose for this: it allows Harold to reflect and recall his life and the decisions he’s made. He meets a lot of interesting characters along the way who make a profound impact on his journey, either helping him out along the way or providing some food for thought. It also colours his journey and really adds to his pilgrimage.
Harold was an interesting character, pretty straightforward, low-key kind of character. He seemed kind and pretty harmless, and I felt bad for him because of his sad childhood and how those experiences with his parents affected him as an adult and his relationship with his wife and with his son, David. I also sort of felt bad for Maureen; at first I was a little annoyed with how annoyed she was over Harold, but I think that annoyance came from the fact that the reader did not spend as much time with her as we did with Harold. Over time, as we got to learn more about Maureen and the internal turmoil that she faces, the more I felt for her character too. There’s an underlying mystery behind the reason for Maureen and Harold’s estrangement that left me thinking and wondering over the course of the novel; I sort of guessed what it was halfway through but the actions of one of the characters threw me off a little so I wasn’t sure of my guess until it was revealed 😉 Nonetheless, it was a heartbreaking reveal, the consequences seen in all of Harold and Maureen’s thoughts and actions.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is overall a quiet but introspective novel about coming to terms with your life, with your past, with all of the mistakes you’ve made and the joys you’ve experienced. While many defining moments in Harold’s life is sad, there’s also a lot of joy in it–either through the little momens he remembers or the potential joy that is yet to come–and the ending reaffirms that hope. If you’re cool with slow-paced, thoughtful reads, I recommend picking this title up 🙂