The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
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.
I have heard endless good things about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry for quite a few months now, and it hasn’t even been released yet. After it was announced that it is also one of the Waterstones 11, a list of 11 top debut novels selected by Waterstones booksellers, I knew I had to give it a go! I was expecting something brilliant, something life-changing that would stay with me for a long time to come. Now, I’m a little bit sad to have to say I didn’t quite love it as much as I wanted to. The thing about this book is that I know some people are absolutely going to love it, and for them it will be life-changing and something they think about for a long, long time. But for me, it lacked a little something, and I’ll try to explain what that was…
Harold receives a letter from a former colleague, and former friend, Queenie, who is writing to tell Harold that she is dying from cancer, but to thank him for his friendship. Harold has a rather quiet reaction to this letter at first, as he realises he hasn’t seen Queenie in many, many years. But this reaction soon grows into something that will ultimately change his life, and the lives of those around him forever. Harold begins a walk to the post box to post his reply, but he knows that what he has written is inadequate and what he wants to say, must be done in person. So begins Harold walk from one end of the UK to the other, leaving his wife Maureen wondering exactly what’s taking him so long to walk to the post box!
This is a very sweet and endearing novel, with a rather dark heart at its centre. Harold and Maureen’s marriage is particularly strained – they sleep in separate bedrooms and don’t have a whole lot to say to each other, but Harold’s relationship with his drug-using son is even more strained, and these relationships both weigh very heavily on Harold as he begins his walk. This walk starts to become much, much more than just a walk. It becomes a journey where Harold looks back on his life and realises where it all went wrong, and a renewed sense of hope begins to shine in him of what his life could be like, with his wife and his son. His walk also becomes a reason to keep living – not just for Queenie, but I think for Harold as well.
My problem with the novel is that my least favourite parts were where Harold was walking. As the main character of the novel, and the walk being the whole premise of the novel in the first place, I would have expected this to be the most exciting bit. However, I found myself wanting to go back to Maureen and her neighbour Rex as they rediscover life together, and find joy in the things that once made them happy. I really loved Maureen as a character and watching her evolve as the novel went on. I felt a great deal of sympathy for her at first as she realises her husband is on this huge undertaking of a journey to see another woman. And although at first she is angry, Maureen slowly realises what her life has become. She has blamed Harold for many years for his awkward relationship with their son, and has held it against him ever since. But with Rex’s help, Maureen revisits old hobbies she used to love, and she becomes excited and proud of Harold for what he is doing. She soon realises just how much she loves and misses her husband, and things have to change.
I really enjoyed Harold looking back on his memories, and they certainly helped add some depth to his character, but like I said earlier, I found his actual journey just a little bit boring. I think for me, the problem was that it was such a huge distance for one man to walk, that the amount of people he met along the way became a little too many, and they are all a bit too one-dimensional. And the more he travelled, the more annoying these other characters became.
However, one thing I can’t fault Joyce for is her ability on how to end a novel, because I thought the ending was absolutely superb. First of all there is a rather big twist that I kicked myself after for not having seen it coming, and I was slightly in awe of Joyce for writing it so well that I never even guessed! Then later, I felt a little short-changed when Harold does finally get to Queenie, and I won’t say why exactly for fear of spoiling it for some of you, but then I realised that this was never really about Queenie. This novel is about Harold and Maureen and their regrets over the years, and finally putting it right and rediscovering their love for one another. This novel is a perfect example of humanity and all its faults and flaws, of how life often doesn’t turn out how you planned, but your life is in your hands and only you have the power to change it. You can plod along in an empty and strained marriage, or you can do something about it. The last few pages are a testimony to Rachel Joyce’s talent as a writer, as they are simply nothing short of perfection. But I felt sad that the journey it took for them both to get to this place in their lives didn’t quite live up to the standard set by the beginning and end. I would have liked to have seen some more in-depth memories from Harold along the way as these really were the best parts, and I would have liked a few more solid characters to appear on his journey, for I honestly only remember one that has stayed with me since.
I’ve often wondered since finishing the novel, whether or not if I was older, would I have gotten more out of it? I would definitely recommend this to women maybe ten/twenty years older than myself. And like I said before, I just know that some readers are absolutely going to love this novel with every bit of their hearts and recommend it to all their friends. Maybe in a few years time I even find myself appreciating it a little more.
I have argued back and forth with myself on how to rate this novel after this review, and I have to admit after reading the superb ending I was about to give it four stars out of five. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the middle section just wasn’t nearly as interesting, and I was unsure if it would be something I’d read again. So I have stuck with three stars. But make no mistake, this is a very sweet novel, and it will make you think, there’s no doubt about that. Rachel Joyce is definitely a gifted writer who has the ability to create characters that are as flawed and troubled as the rest of us, but who will also give you a few laughs along the way. I will definitely be looking out for anything she writes in the future.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is out on 15th March 2012, published by Doubleday. A big thank you to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.