The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is exactly that. Harold, a staid and quite frankly boring man, receives a letter from Queenie Henessey, a former colleague at the same brewery where he worked almost all his life and whom he has not seen nor heard from for over 20 years. She is dying of cancer. He writes a short note in reply, but when he goes to post his letter he decides instead to take it to her in person. The walk is out of character for him but is an act of faith. His message, when he tries to talk to Queenie, is: ‘I am on my way. All you have to do is wait. I will keep walking and you must keep living.’
Harold begins the walk as a buttoned up ‘rule driven’ man. He walks in a tie. It makes him feel comfortable. What unfolds as the days pass and Harold walks along roads and verges in his yachting shoes, is a slow moving voyage of discovery, re-discovery and the seeking of simple pleasures. Harold begins to discard his lifelong shackles. He learns about roadside plants, becomes self-sufficient and takes slow pleasure in this new skill. He starts acknowledging his shortcomings in his relationship with his only son David, mourning the loss of his once fulfilling marriage and coming to terms with the loss of his mother and the impact this had on his childhood. Harold meets many people along the way and is continually surprised that they are interested in his walk. He listens to them and their problems in exchange for some kindness and realises that there are a lot of people with huge problems just trying to be normal in everyday life.
When Harold embarks on this walk, his wife Maureen’s reaction is one of total disbelief and puzzlement at this uncharacteristic behaviour and expects his return within days. Slowly, as she realises he will not coming back, she unfolds a little. The reader learns how she feels life has disappointed her and how she blames Harold. However, as time moves on so does her perception of the past allowing her to experience emotions she has kept hidden for many years.
Rachel Joyce’s book was written in 2006 when her father was diagnosed with cancer. It was originally a radio play and the reader gets a sense of this with the many cameos or walk on parts within the book. I thought this book flowed beautifully and was a joy to read. The prose is simple and slow moving such that you feel as though you are walking with Harold and experiencing the highs and lows with him. These are a few unexpected jaw-dropping turns within the book (won’t spoil them!) and although the book is in essence about death it is also extremely uplifting and in places, amusing and quite thought provoking. I loved it!