Publisher: Doubleday (15 Mar 2012)
When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking to save someone else’s life.
When Harold receives a letter from old colleague Queenie Hennessey, we are introduced to where Harold is in his life. Retired for six months, days monotonous and routine, estranged from his wife Maureen, the letter precipitates reflections and recollections. Queenie is in St Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick on Tweed and is terminally ill. Harold writes a reply and sets out for the letter box on the corner of the road … and keeps on walking. A chance encounter with a girl in the garage gives him the idea that if he walks to Queenie she will continue to live.
At the beginning of Harold’s journey he is still encased in his domestic life but as he continues, he sloughs off society and is inspired by nature and the kindness of strangers. His thoughts rest on his childhood and his life – by inference the reader is aware that there is a major trauma underlying his recollections. As his journey continues he enters cycles of joy and despondency.
Whilst Harold is walking, the reader also experiences what is happening to Maureen in their home in Kingsbridge. She comes to her own realisations and her healing begins.
When the media become aware of what he is doing, the pilgrimage changes from a solitary pursuit into something that is hyped up and loses its meaning. For a while Harold gets caught up in this, even though he doesn’t want to (oh that English politeness!) and the healing that began stops while he always has to consider others. It doesn’t need any stretching of the imagination to believe that this is how it could happen!
Written in the third person, we are able to identify with both Harold and Maureen. We see the changes that happen although it is not until we are near the end we understand totally.
The characters that Harold meet are diverse and bring added depth to his journey. Through them he comes to realise that we all hide ourselves behind the masks we present to other people.
The pace of the story is well-timed. The reader spends just the right amount of time on one ‘aspect’ before the story changes pace. This held my concentration. My emotions were engaged more deeply than I thought, yes, I did cry with Harold and Maureen sitting on a bench watching the tide coming in.
I also enjoyed the figurative language, for me, personification hooks my imagination. For example on page 187 “ … and the day grew more confident…”
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a coming to terms of choices made in the past and therefore a journey of healing to a place where we can live with those choices. It shows us how we can be so focussed on what we didn’t do that we actually miss the things we did do.
I am giving The Unlikely Pilgrimage the following rating:
This book has been chosen as one of the Waterstones 11 for 2011. This is the pick of debut novels that Waterstones believes are potential prize-winners.
I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an uncorrected proof copy to review in exchange for an honest review.
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About the Author:
Rachel Joyce has written over 20 original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4, and major adaptations for both the Classic Series, Woman’s Hour and also a TV drama adaptation for BBC 2. In 2007 she won the Tinniswood Award for best radio play.
She moved to writing after a twenty-year career in theatre and television, performing leading roles for the RSC, the Royal National Theatre, The Royal Court, and Cheek by Jowl, winning a Time Out Best Actress award and the Sony Silver.
This is her first novel. She is currently at work on her second.