Saturday, November 16, 2013

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Harold Fry is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance.

Recently retired, sweet, emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his passivity by a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old friend, who he hasn't heard from in twenty years. She has written to say she is in hospice and wanted to say goodbye. Leaving his tense, bitter wife Maureen to her chores, Harold intends a quick walk to the corner mailbox to post his reply but instead, inspired by a chance encounter, he becomes convinced he must deliver his message in person to Queenie--who is 600 miles away--because as long as he keeps walking, Harold believes that Queenie will not die.

So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or cell phone, one of the most endearing characters in current fiction begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside. Along the way, strangers stir up memories--flashbacks, often painful, from when his marriage was filled with promise and then not, of his inadequacy as a father, and of his shortcomings as a husband.

Ironically, his wife Maureen, shocked by her husband's sudden absence, begins to long for his presence. Is it possible for Harold and Maureen to bridge the distance between them? And will Queenie be alive to see Harold arrive at her door?


Wow, how can a book be so happy and so sad at the same time?

Harold and Maureen are senior citizens whose marriage cooled off several years ago, and they are really only housemates. One morning, a goodbye letter arrives from Queenie Hennessy, a former work friend Harold hasn't seen for twenty years. She tells him that she's dying and all sorts of memories are stirred up for Harold.

He sets off to post a condolence letter but it doesn't seem adequate. He intends to walk to the next letter box, and then to the next town, but finishes hiking all the way up the centre of Britain to deliver it in person. His quest is all tied in with a challenge from a shop girl to never give up but cling to faith that things might change.

As he walks, he processes all sorts of buried memories about his earlier life with Maureen and their son, David. Harold feels as if he's failed everybody. We know that he let Queenie take the blame for something he did, although it isn't clear what. We also know that he feels he let David down, although we aren't sure why. This makes his journey all the more interesting, as we expect all will be revealed at the end.

When it came, I wasn't prepared for the shock and emotion of it all. Whoa, it definitely explains such a lot about all four main characters, Harold, Maureen, David and Queenie. How heart-wrenching. Until I got near the end, I was wondering what other reviewers meant, as it seemed like a whimsical, happy book.

There was a lot to like about it. There should be more heroes like Harold. His story shows that we should never underestimate the quiet, self-effacing type who never seem to have much to contribute.

I like Maureen, and the fact that Harold's walk helped her work through many issues, to realise all that he really meant to her. I hope people who are considering making David's decision may stop to ponder the repercussions in the lives of their loved-ones, which may go on and on for years.

I think it's a book that reveals significance in the most seemingly bland memories, and that so often, the apparently small things turn out to be the big things.

4 stars

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel available from Amazon

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