Rachel Joyce (2012) The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry Random House, New York; 336 pp.; eISBN 978-0-679-64511-5
Harold and Maureen Fry are living in quiet retirement in small Devon town. Love vacated the marriage two decades ago: the couple sleep apart and hardly speak to each other. Maureen talks to their son David, but he never comes to see them. Harold worked for forty-five years in the local brewery and one day a former colleague named Queenie Hennessey writes from a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed to say that she is dying (of inoperable cancer, not cirrhosis of the liver). Harold pens a short reply, utterly devoid of emotion, and walks down the street to post it. He passes two post boxes, the post office and eventually finds himself on the outskirts of town, walking north.
So begins Harold’s journey. At a garage outside town he tells a young woman of his idea of walking to Berwick to reply to Queenie in person, and she inspires him by telling a tale of her aunt who was also dying of cancer and how the power of faith saved her. This confirms Harold’s determination and he begins a long, slow walk. He is old, out of shape and not in the least prepared for such a long journey, causing him to doubt the sanity of his decision, but he now believes that as long as he keeps walking, Queenie will live.
Harold meets a variety of characters along the way, most of them with troubled, unfulfilled lives. A few scoff at his efforts but most are encouraging and after an encounter with a young reporter his story attracts media attention and a circus band of followers who threaten to undermine the purpose and purity of Harold’s quest.
But the central story is the transformation of both Harold and Maureen during the course of Harold’s travels. He realises that he has been a poor husband and a failure as a father, but also recalls how he was abandoned by his own parents and how this made him shy away from the world until he first met Maureen. He remembers how it all went wrong and how their marriage descended into a long sad silence, and is increasingly heartbroken about the son who abandoned them.
On good days he is heartened by the natural world around him, how it teems with life, and learns to be more accepting of people he meets. He works on the premise that most strangers are kind and this turns out to be true. On the bad days he is wracked by despair, physically exhausted and full of doubt about his journey and his worth as a human being.
Maureen has mixed feelings when she first finds out what Harold is doing. She pretends it is of no consequence, but is increasingly lonely and lost without him. When Harold calls from phone boxes up and down the country, she is unable to express how she really feels. Too many years of building barriers between each other has left both Maureen and Harold unable to tear them down. It is a widowed neighbour, Rex, who helps Maureen to understand her feelings more clearly and to finally speak to Harold with meaning and affection.
Queenie is dying, but she also suffered in the past and it is this latter episode that causes Harold a degree of guilt and leads him to question the integrity of his life. We can never go back and undo the past, but sometimes we can make amends and move forward in a different way. Can Harold and Maureen make a change now, or is it all too late?
Rachel Joyce is an actor and playwright. This is her first novel and the characters are based on an earlier radio play. All quest or journey stories have a standard structure, and this book is no exception. But the writing is clear and evocative, and Harold, Maureen and Rex are characters with whom most readers will have empathy. It is a touching story that explores regret and guilt, and questions whether and how we can move beyond the burden of our past. There is also a nice sting in the tail: at the end of the journey two people are dead and Harold and Maureen are laughing their heads off on the beach at Berwick.