The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce starts with a wonderfully simple idea. Harold Fry, resident of 13 Fossebridge Road, gets a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, saying she is dying of cancer. He drafts a reply and goes out to post it. He reaches the post box and, instead of slotting it in, decides to walk to the next one. And the next one after that. Before long, he concludes that a letter is not enough.
He will have to walk to Queenie Hennessy himself. Only one snag: the journey from Kingsbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed is 627 miles.
So starts the tale of a modern pilgrim. The epigraph of the novel comes from John Bunyan, and the classic themes of pilgrimage — contemplation, purging of past sins — are threaded through the novel. Harold Fry starts to mull over old regrets: the friendship he had and then lost with Queenie, the mistakes he made with his son, David, and the strained relationship with his wife, Maureen. Inspired by a girl at a nearby garage — ‘if you have faith, you can do anything’ — he hopes to keep Queenie living through his walk. And, perhaps, save himself along the way as well.
The writing is elegant, with some pleasingly deft touches. Joyce is particularly good at describing the outdoors, with ‘a tissue-paper sky’ or a morning view ‘combed through with cloud’. Indeed, one of the joys of the book is the way it rambles through the English landscape. There is a lovely map at the back showing Harold’s journey, and famous towns and hotspots are given cameos. Sheffield is ‘a sulphuric glow on the horizon’. The Vale of Gloucester falls ‘to his left like a giant bowl’. Quirky place names are in abundance: Mickleton, Ticknall, Little Chester, Old Sodbury. As one woman remarks: ‘One wonders where these names all come from’. Each place offers up its own motley crew of characters, all in their way ‘searching for happiness’.
As Harold’s trip continues, he starts to attract press attention. There is some delightfully sharp humour as the press rush to cash in on his good intentions, and the unintended consequences, with spots on Thought for the Day and ‘leading articles about the nature of the modern pilgrimage, quintessential England, and the pluck of the Saga generation’. Harold finds himself burdened with hangers-on. Trouble brews. A splinter group is formed. Eventually, they break away and reach Berwick-upon-Tweed without him. The book’s middle section is a classic Wodehousian satire on public overexcitement and its consequences. One mayor goes so far as to label Harold a ‘white middle-class elitist’ for failing to stop off at his patch.
Harold, however, is forced to continue alone. And it is in this last section that the novel really comes into its own. Revelations about what happened to Harold’s son and its effect on his marriage, plus the tragic state of Queenie Hennessey, are brilliantly handled. So too is the slow and tentative reconciliation between Harold and Maureen. Joyce manages that rare balancing act of embedding homespun philosophy — ‘It was as much of a gift to receive as it was to give’; ‘everyone was the same, and unique…this was the dilemma of being human’m— without being twee. The emotional range is unique for what is essentially a comic work, and faultlessly navigated. It is a brilliant and charming novel: full of comic panache yet acute and
poignant. Perfect fare, in fact, for a sunny April afternoon, assuming the rain ever stops.