THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by RACHEL JOYCE

It takes a certain kind of book to make you sit on a train, crying as you read.

Rachel Joyce’s “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” is such a book.

This is a novel that is everything a fabulous read shoud be. It is moving, inspiring, funny, inspirational, lyrical – gosh, that could almost have been written by one of Harold’s pilgrims.

A man, a very ordinary, undistinguished, lonely man in his early 60s, Harold sets off one morning to post a letter to a cancer-stricken colleague from his past. But instead of posting the letter, he makes a completely out of character decision.  He walks right on past the letterbox down the street, and decides to deliver the letter in person, to walk almost the length of England to visit Queenie in person. He sets out on this rashly started, completely unthought-through journey with the belief that by walking, he will somehow make Queenie stay alive until he gets here.

He leaves behind him, in his lonely suburban home, his lonely bitter wife Maureen. Locked in a dull, uneventful, tired marriage, they no longer communicate, let alone love each other, apparently.

This marvellous, fabulously well-written book is perfect on so many levels.

It is first and foremost a compelling story.

Will Harold arrive in time at the hospice in time to meet with Queenie and apologise for something that has been troubling him for many years ?

It is also a good old-fashioned love story, again on so many levels, but I would hate to spoil the plot.

One of the love stories that I can safely share is that of the writer (quite clearly) with England.  As Harold journeys north through the English summer countryside, we are treated to a description of the highways and by-ways that is as lyrical and (for a long-term expat like your reviewer) quite frankly as moving a tribute to one’s home country that you could wish to read.

The book is also a picaresque story of one rather ordinary man’s quest to do good, and to redeem himself, and as we walks and thinks and tackles his blisters, Harold grows in stature and self awareness and by the time he arrives in Berwick-upon-Tweed, thin, tanned, sporting a beard, he is a different man.  Harold has met his demons, faced them, and triumphed.  He has also found his true love.

Along the way, Harold the pilgrim meets people who touch his life for, in some cases, just a few minutes, but each of them is writ large.

What a cast of characters.

“Leaving South Brent, Harold met a man in his dressing gown who was leaving food on a saucer for the hedgehogs. He crossed the road to avoid dogs and further on he overtook a young tattooed woman bawling beneath an upstairs window: ‘I know you’re there! I know you can hear me!’ She paced up and down, kicking at garden walls, her body brittle with fury, and every time she appeared on the point of giving up, she returned to the foot of the house and yelled again; ‘You bastard, Arran! I know you’re there!’ Harold also passed an abandoned mattress, the entrails of a sabotaged fridge, several single shoes, many plastic bags and a hubcap, until once again the pavements stopped, and what had been a road narrowed itself to a lane. It surprised him how relieved he felt to be under the sky again, and hedged between trees, and the Earth banks that were thick with firms and brambles.” 

The author is a kindly, wry observer as she places all these weird and wonderful, kind and often seemingly humdrum people along the path of her weary, footsore (oh, those blisters) pilgrim.

At one point, Harold unwittingly and unwillingly gathers a whole band of fellow travellers – except that he has made a private pact, and is walking to meet Queenie, and they think they are, but they are not, of course.  They are all there, walking with Harold, for completely diferent reasons, and the author’s descriptions of these well-intentioned publicity-seeking happy campers is hilarious and spot-on.

‘But Rich told you,’ she said, ‘you don’t have to drink them. You can throw it away as soon as the photos taken.’

He smiled sadly. ‘I can’t hold the bottle and remove the lid and then not drink it. I am a postwar child, Kate. We don’t talk up our achievements, and we don’t throw things away. It’s how we were brought up.’

Kate reached up her arms and gave him a damp hug.

He wanted to return it, but he stood rather helpless in her embrace. Maybe that was another symptom of his generation? Certainly he looked at the people around him in their vest tops and their shorts, and wondered if he had become superfluous.”

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” is a delightful Canterbury tales for the 21st century.

Published by Doubleday, the Hardback costs £12.99.

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