The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is a road trip story with a difference. The protagonist is sixty-five years old and is travelling on foot. Although his journey teaches him a great deal about himself, others and life, the lessons learned by those he leaves behind are at least as powerful. This is a story of loss, and of the particular loneliness experienced by those who build walls around their emotions.
Harold Fry has been retired for six months and rarely goes out. He worked the same job for forty-five years but has few friends. His wife spends her days cleaning their already clean house and finding reasons to berate him. His days stretch before him with little purpose.
Into this sterile world arrives a letter from a former work colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who Harold has neither seen nor heard from in twenty years. He learns that Queenie is in a hospice with terminal cancer. Unsure how to respond, he pens a brief reply and sets out to post it. When he reaches the post box at the end of his quiet, residential road he keeps on walking.
Harold has no plan and cannot explain his actions, even to himself. A chance encounter with a young cashier at a garage where he stops for food places the seed of an idea into his head. Rather than go home he decides that he must continue to walk, from Devon to Berwick, a journey of over five hundred miles. He will reunite with Queenie and somehow keep her alive. He is wearing yacht shoes, his usual shirt and tie; he has his wallet but no provisions and no phone.
As he walks Harold mulls over his life. He has many regrets but also imponderables over how he could have engineered more favourable outcomes. As well as this self analysis he starts to appreciate his surroundings, to which he had previously paid little attention. He encounters strangers and starts to listen to their stories.
Harold’s wife, Maureen, is left to come to terms with her husband’s inexplicable behaviour. She first feels anger and then bereft. A lifetime of not talking about how they feel prevents meaningful communication. Each must find their own way forward, one step at a time and alone.
This is a poignant and beautifully told tale. Harold and Maureen are recognisable to anyone who knows people of this age. How they are seen by others matters to them yet has stifled their potential. Their journeys are both physical and metaphorical.
I loved the language and imagery, how ordinary the cast of characters felt in what is an extraordinary tale. Those who helped along the way offered hope in a society that can seem so flawed. There remained selfishness, especially when the press became involved, but individuals shone through the collective toxicity.
A feel good tale with depth, advocating a willingness to look beyond the net curtains that shield inhabitants from the outside world. Read this book; laugh, weep and remember what it is to express love. I recommend it to all.