Booker Longlist 2: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry truly is a charming and lovely story. It is a story of hope and redemption, human frailties and strengths. It can be read simply as one man’s walk across the country, a heartwarming and emotional tale. There is much more to discover and ponder as you travel with Harold however.

Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryHarold Fry is a normal, everyday sort of man. He has worked hard all his life, married and had a family, and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible despite being a tall and impressive figure. Now retired, his daily routine is just that, routine, dull and really not at all fulfilling. When he receives a letter from a colleague he once considered a friend, with news of her terminal illness, something shifts inside him. As he walks to the post box to send his reply he finds he does not want the walk to end. With only the clothes on his back and the yachting shoes on his feet he makes the momentous decision to continue to the other end of England to save Queenie’s life.

As he walks the landscape stirs memories; a copse of trees is moulded by the wind into the shape of a quiff reminding him of his teenage hairstyle, for instance. Being outside, surrounded by the countryside, also gives him the space he needs to remember and think. Harold may have laid low all his life, but there are still tragedies to be confronted and reconciled. His honest appraisal of his own life gives him a greater appreciation of the trials of his fellow humans. As his journey continues he finds himself hearing the stories of those he meets. His solitude and patience, as well as his non-judgmental attitude, lend him the aura of a priest. Harold hears some strange tales, but instead of condemning them, they lead him to reflect on how difficult it is just to get on and exist in the world.

As his pilgrimage gains notoriety he starts to attract pilgrims wanting to walk with him. Although he has no real desire for permanent company on his personal journey he cannot turn them away. But with company comes conflict; differences of opinion require mediation. Harold doesn’t want to offend anyone, but sitting on the fence can be as antagonistic as outright disagreement. It made me think about how easy it was for Harold to comfort those he met when he was a transient visitor. Maintaining a relationship is much harder. Harold’s marriage is a tragic example of this. As the physical distance between Harold and his wife grew ever greater I hoped the gap in communication between the pair could close. Despite years of merely existing together in the same space this daring act of Harold’s has the potential to let them remember the people they were.

Harold’s meditation on the nature of beginnings caught my eye. How can we be sure, when we turn over a new leaf or start afresh, that a new beginning is genuinely that? It’s hard to tell one from a continuation of what’s gone before. But, we can be reassured that beginnings can happen more than once. Each stage of Harold’s quest is a beginning, but some are more fundamental and consciously taken than others.

It was a joy to read this book, even though it did provoke a tear every now and then. I read it as compulsively as Harold walks as I got caught up in his unintended act of heroism. He is no saint, but his endeavor has the power to touch and transform lives. Walk with Harold and be enriched. 

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