Book Review – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Harold Fry goes down the street to mail a letter and ends of walking across England. This is the basic plot of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Bond Street Books, 2012) and it has many of the hallmarks of a classic hero quest.

Harold is a decent guy, recently retired, married to Maureen, father to David, middle-class, Baby Boomer. He mows his lawn a little more than necessary and he continues to wear a shirt and tie six months into retirement (and, indeed, almost throughout his pilgrimage, which I found rather charming). Harold is very, very English.

The letter he sets out to post is to Queenie Hennessy, a former colleague whom Harold hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie has written to tell Harold she has advanced cancer, that there’s nothing more to be done, and to say good-bye.

A chance encounter with a young girl at a gas station somehow convinces Harold that if he can walk to Berwick-upon-Tweed, where Queenie is in hospice, he might save her life. Feeling that his note could never thank Queenie for what she once did for him, Harold begins his pilgrimage.

Harold is woefully unequipped for such a journey, both physically and in terms of equipment. (Frequent mention is made of the fact that he wears yachting shoes and I had to look up what those were. We call them boat shoes here. Again, very English.) As the novel and his journey progresses, Harold simplifies even more and this represents his newly found freedom, as well as his increasing separation from the rest of the world.

At one point Harold’s wife, left behind by a husband who said he was mailing a letter at the end of the street, visits a doctor and tells him that Harold has Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t, but I wouldn’t necessarily have been surprised if that was the direction the plot took, especially because Harold’s father’s death from Alzheimer’s is mentioned frequently. And, in fact, the ending seems to suggest that this is possibly how Harold will die too. Maybe this whole novel actually is a tale of the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s?

Mostly, I had to wonder why on Earth Harold thought he could stop terminal cancer. Harold really seems convinced, at points, that he is walking to save Queenie’s life, though at other points he is convinced he is being foolish. Harold frequently struggles with wanting to turn around and go home but always something convinces him to continue. Usually the fact that he is helping Queenie by walking. The book never much points us to one judgement or another so it’s hard to say what we’re supposed to think. Is this a realistic story where Queenie will die? Or is this a fantasy where Harold can actually save her?

Part of the problem is that so much of Harold and Queenie’s relationship is withheld from us. Anecdotes and history are doled out slowly through Harold’s reminisces, as if there is some larger secret, but it’s mostly unnecessary. We can’t help wondering – as many peripheral characters do – if there is a romantic link between Harold and Queenie. In Harold’s mind, we see that question answered by his reflections on her physical plainness. Which doesn’t really answer our question and is rather offensive.

The only person who doesn’t seem to worry about this possible romance is wife Maureen. She worries that Harold has left her but never seems to think that Queenie Hennessy could be the deciding factor. She alternates – realistically, I think – between anger at Harold and missing him desperately. Maureen bothered me at first because she seemed to be that shrill stereotype, the nagging wife who cleans the house too much and smothers her son so that his own father can hardly have a relationship with him. It seemed as if the novel was using her to excuse Harold’s behaviour. Fortunately, as the story progresses, we get to see more of Maureen, more of her fragilities, her doubts. We also get to see her as Harold remembers her and how much he loved her. As Harold recalls the good memories of his marriage, we too become more sympathetic and gentle toward Maureen and, eventually, it’s their relationship that we worry about the most.

I enjoyed a lot of the time focused on Harold’s walk. His highs and lows seemed realistic – swings from complete confidence in his quest to utter discouragement, often corresponding to the weather or how his feet feel (those pesky yachting shoes again). Overall though, these scenes went on too long. There’s a tedious section where Harold is joined by a group of wannabe pilgrims. It was boring, too long, and added nothing to the plot or to what we knew and learned about Harold. By two-thirds of the way through the novel, I was ready for Harold to arrive in Berwick-upon-Tweed and his walking scenes started to feel like filler.

While Harold is charming and parts of his journey are interesting, I didn’t find the walk itself offered much tension. I was reasonably sure that he would reach Berwick-upon-Tweed and I was reasonably sure that his arrival wouldn’t make a difference to Queenie’s health. Am I cynical? Maybe. I do understand the disbelief a grieving person might have that someone they care about could die before they’re ready. But I also know that death doesn’t wait until we’re prepared. I think the novel agrees with me here, because before the end arrives, the story really reveals itself to be about Harold and what walking is doing in his life, rather than Queenie’s.

Throughout the novel, the sacrifice that Queenie made for Harold is alluded to but not revealed until almost the end. Withholding this information felt pretty unnecessary and, in fact, deflated the impact of the final reveal. On the flip side, there is a surprising reveal near the end that caught me off guard and added a good deal of new meaning to what had come before.

In the end, the conclusion is sweet, fairly heart-warming, and decently satisfying. And, ultimately, that’s really what this novel is.

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