Friday, 14 June 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Publication date: 1st January 2012
Published by: Random House
Genre: Contemporary (Adult)

Harold Fry is recently retired and suddenly has a lot of free time on his hands. While having breakfast with his wife one morning, he receives a hand-written envelope in the post.  Used to only receiving bills in the mail, he regards it curiously.  Inside is a letter from an old friend, Queenie, who he has not seen or heard from in many years.  Queenie has written to tell Harold that she is dying of terminal cancer and to say good-bye.  Harold is affected by the letter and thoughts of Queenie bring back old memories.  He writes a response and sets out to post it in the nearest letterbox.  When he arrives he hesitates and decides to walk a bit further to the next one.  On the way he stops in at a local service station and strikes up a conversation with the girl serving at the counter.  He tells her about Queenie.  The girl inspires him and he becomes convinced that he needs to go to Queenie right away.  He sets off immediately, despite being unprepared for such a long journey.   He is convinced that as long as he keeps walking, Queenie will keep living….

As the title suggests, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a novel about a man who embarks on a "journey".  It is not clear from the start what transpired between him and Queenie, but it is clear that he feels both affection for her and guilt over the way things were left when they parted company.  We also learn that although Harold and his wife reside in the same house they live separate lives and their relationship is strained.  They have one son and it would appear that Harold is estranged from him and feels guilt about that also. 

Back at home Harold’s absence continues to have an effect on his wife, Maureen.  At first she is angry and feels humiliated that he would leave to go to another woman.  Later she realises she misses him and wants him home.

Harold is emotionally constipated and this took its toll on his relationship with his son while the boy was growing up, as well as on his relationship with his wife.  He feels a tremendous amount of guilt as a result. He sees the journey as a kind of penance – even when the opportunity arises to buy comfortable hiking gear he takes the decision not to, preferring to suffer his deck shoes. He chooses to give up the comfort of hotel rooms and possessions, traveling light, sleeping outdoors and eating whatever he can get his hands on (be it from the kindness of strangers or from the great outdoors).  In time he feels closer to nature.

Harold's pilgrimage gives him the opportunity to reflect on his life.  We learn about his childhood, which sheds light on his inability to express himself emotionally, and it is difficult not to empathise with him.  The journey is therapeutic for him as he is able to face up to things that he had been ignoring for many years.  By facing them he is able to deal with them.   The need for penance is linked to the strong feeling of guilt he has.  Most of that guilt is about his relationship with his son, whom he longs to reconcile with. 

Some may find this novel overly sentimental.  It certainly reads as though the author wants to appeal more to her readers’ hearts than their minds; If she succeeds in making you cry her job is done.  I read this novel for my book group and during our meeting a few members admitted that she succeeded.  It did not make me cry.  Personally I am not a fan of books that try too hard to manipulate my emotions and I wondered if I was determined not to cry for that reason. I decided that was not it. A friend of mine who also read it described it as 'light'. My view is that there is more to it than surface and what lies beneath has been skillfully executed by Joyce. It strikes me as a perceptive portrayal of how what affects a person in childhood stays with them throughout their life and can hamper relationships in adulthood.  She then explores the consequences. It got me thinking how passiveness is more likely to lead to suffering while activeness (although difficult and risky) can change a person's situation for the better.

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