The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

Purchased from the Book Depository

Harold Fry has lead a quiet and uneventful (some would say dull) life as a brewery sales representative in Kingsbridge, Devon. That life got even quieter six months ago when he retired — Harold and his wife, Maureen, pretty much stopped communicating with each other more than a decade ago, so his current existence is both dreary and lonely.

Life takes a turn one day when the post arrives. Author Rachel Joyce’s prose is consistent enough that it is worth quoting the opening of the novel, both to set the narrative stage and to illustrate the straightforward declative tone that characterizes the entire book:

The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbours’ closeboard fencing.

‘Harold!’ called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. ‘Post!’

He thought he might like to go out, but the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday. The vacuum tumbled into silence, and his wife appeared, looking cross, with a letter. She sat opposite Harold.

The fateful letter is from Queenie Hennessy, a former colleague of Harold’s at the brewery — Queenie was the first-ever woman to head the accounts departmment and she and Harold used to travel offsite to check the (cheating) books of various landlords. Queenie departed following a flare-up with management twenty years ago and the two have not been in contact since; the letter from her informs Harold that Queenie is now suffering from terminal cancer in a hospice in Berwick on the England-Scotland border, 627 miles northeast of Kingsbridge.

Harold has never told Maureen about his “relationship” with Queenie (frankly, there wasn’t much to tell — they spent time together on business travelling from brewery to pub and then back). So when he writes his very short response, he keeps it hidden from Maureen and simply tells her he is heading down the road to mail it.

He almost puts the letter in the neighborhood post box, but feels ashamed of his inadequate response before he drops it in. So he decides to continue on to the next…and the next after that, because his mental dilemma remains unresolved. Memories, not just of Queenie but of what life used to be like with Maureen, start popping into his head as he passes post box after post box.

All this continues until Harold reaches the outskirts of town and discovers he has missed the midday collection. He heads across the street to a petrol station to buy a snack — the girl with the HAPPY TO HELP badge suggests a microwaved BBQ Cheese Beast with fries. Harold tells her about his “posting” mission and Queenie’s cancer; the girl talks about her aunt who had cancer:

‘You have to believe. That’s what I think. It’s not about medicine and all that stuff. You have to believe a person can get better. There is so much in the human mind we don’t understand. But, you see, if you have faith you can do anything.’

And so the Unlikely Pilgrimage has been inspired. When Harold leaves the petrol station, he turns not towards home but away from Kingsbridge and north toward Berwick, more than 600 miles away where Queenie lies dying. He may be wearing a shirt and tie (and deck shoes) but the faith he will express in journeying on foot to Berwick will keep her alive.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a “walking” book where the hero sets off on foot for a faraway destination that is important to him. It is a not-infrequent literary device — my blogging friend Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes in his review of this novel has offered a number of examples and I won’t repeat them here, but it is worth checking out.

It is easy to understand why the “walking” book appeals to novelists. The approach allows for the introduction of a wide variety of characters (and Joyce does just that) but, by definition, they show up and disappear into the background quickly, so they only have to be sketched. A small sampling of those in this novel, in addition to the “garage girl”, include some extensively- and expensively-equipped metro-based trekkers, an east-European emigre doctor (now employed as a cleaning lady) and a free-lance journalist, who sells a version of Harold’s story that for a few weeks turns his lonely trek into a cult-based following of misfits. On one level, all “walking” novels are a collection of set pieces.

All that current stuff, though, is just the icing on the cake of the walking experience — the real sustenance lies in the back story. Again by definition, walking is a lonely experience and the walker’s thoughts tend to turn to memory, what was and what might have been. In Harold Fry’s case, that bounces back and forth between the times he spent with Queenie and what led to the breakdown of his marriage with Maureen.

Let me extend that cake metaphor just a bit. With some “walking” novels (say W.G. Sebald), the cake is dense, flavorful and fruity, much like the ones your grandmother used to make months before Christmas and regularly drench with brandy to get them ready for the holiday season. Others are more like the sponge or angel food cakes your mother used to whip up in the afternoon, ready for heaping with whipped cream and fresh strawberries following that evening’s meal.

For me, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a reading version of that sponge cake. This may be a debut novel for Joyce, but she is a more than competent writer and it went down just fine. The problem was that there was not much substance to it and one chapter tasted pretty much like the last one — and offered the promise (always fulfilled) that the next would be very similar.

I never really engaged with Harold, his past, or his present journey with the result that I found the novel to be a sentimental trek at best, one that I was quite happy to finally finish. It was all just too predictable.

I should note in closing that other readers have responded far more positively — Tony at Tony’s Book World predicts it will be “a new classic” and various Amazon sites have numerous five-star reviews. I am sure that it is a far better book if you do engage in Harold’s trek and I suspect a large number of book clubs will be going through the “sentimental” versus “classic” debate in the upcoming months.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize and, I think, illustrates the wide gap in tastes on this year’s jury that is reflected in that longlist. At one end of the spectrum, we have novels like this one and Michael Frayn’s comic Skios, both as conventional as conventional can be, and at the other the modernist Swimming Home and Will Self’s unconventional Umbrella (as yet not read by KfC). It will be interesting to see how the jury resolves these different tastes when it comes time to declare a shortlist. I confess I’ll be disappointed if The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry shows up there.

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30 Responses to “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce”

  1. Eileen Pierce Says:

    Kevin, I completely agree with your review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This sort of insubstantial, sentimental novel is becoming more and more popular with publishers and readers alike. I read half of Fry and decided it was not worth any more of my time. I replaced it with a lush, mysterious and poetic novel by Ann Enright — The Many Pleasures of Eliza Lynch. The difference was astonishing. Here was a historic and highly atmospheric novel full of complex characters and remarkable prose, none of which was in evidence throughout Fry — a bland, monotone of a novel with no muscle, no plot, and characters as hollow as shells.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome, Eileen: Well, I would say this novel is about as far from Anne Enright as you can get. I have not read Eliza Lynch but have read both The Gathering (which I found a tough slog) and The Forgotten Waltz, which I thought was excellent.

    For what it is worth, I suspect your feelings about this novel at the halfway point would only have been confirmed if you had continued. In no way is that a criticism of those who do like it — just as I don’t criticize those who prefer sponge to fruit cake (more of the good cake for me, in that case).

  3. Amy Says:

    (SPOILERS)

    Oh, it’s nice to see I’m not the only one not completely in love with this book. It was OK, but as you said, predictable and repetitive. Plus the information we learn at the end about Harold and Maureen’s son felt manipulative, something we should have been told at the beginning.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    (SPOILERS)

    Amy: I did not want to say that about the ending in the review, but I agree with you completely. We knew that there was some issue with the son — but the eventual resolution fell far short of the options that I had in mind.

    I know you are a Tournament of Books fan and I’ll be interested if this makes their list. On the one hand, it has the kind of “book club” appeal that they usually like to recognize with a couple of finalists. On the other, as you and I agree, it is very predictable in the way that it unfolds.

    (I’m putting a spoiler warning on your comment and this one for people who haven’t read the book — hope you don’t mind.)

  5. anokatony Says:

    Onr thing is for sure: one of us will be disappointed with the shortlist. You will be disappointed if “Harold Fry” makes the shortlist; I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t. Yes, the novel is semtimental, but I felt it was a hard-earned sentimentality. A difference of opinion there, and that’s a good thing.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Tony: Well, I did link your review because I think it does reflect an entirely worthwhile opinion, even if I don’t share it. I was aware throughout the book that others would be responding differently than I did. In fact, Mrs. KfC read the review and came down to the library immediately to say she wanted to read the book — and has started it already.

      Alas, she also said she wants cake for dessert tonight (sponge would be fine, she says) and I don’t know how to bake.

      Blogging is not nearly as easy as some think.

  6. Louise Says:

    Dear KevinfromCanada,
    Of all the things I adore about you & your blog – and there are many, many, many – I’m happiest of all to learn today that you are a lover of fruit cake. Not to brag, but I bake a fab fruit cake – wish I could attach one with this comment.
    Seriously, love your blog. Thank you.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Louise: What kind words! And an even kinder thought! Thank you.

    • Eileen Pierce Says:

      Hi, Louise: I could not agree more with you about Kevin’s blog. Of all the book review blogs it is the best. I think it has to do with his sense of humility, his commitment to be entirely honest, which at the same time sharing his astute sense of what makes good literature and what does not. I am so glad to have accidentally come upon this wonderful blog which has enriched my reading experience more than I can say. Eileen Pierce

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Eileen: Okay, now I am blushing. Thank you very much for that touching comment. I will do my best to hold up my end of the bargain.

  7. sshaver Says:

    I had never thought about the aloneness of walking.

    • Eileen Pierce Says:

      I suspect it is that very thing — aloneness- which is what kept me from walking when I was younger. Even now as I stumble toward 70 I rarely walk for the sake of walking. Loneliness is so persistent; it will sneak up on you when you least expect it. Eileen

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I quite like this:

    “It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings.”

    But this:

    “Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie …” and this:

    “trapped on all three sides by the neighbours’ closeboard fencing.” feel obviious.

    Trevor’s review already utterly put me off this. I think I’d absolutely hate it. I have a low sentimentality threshold, for good or ill.

    One point I saw in a blog which struck me as interesting was whether Harold was very credible. It comes out in the shirt and tie bit. Most older people I know are pretty active. They potter about, have hobbies and interests, they get on with their lives unless they’re too old to do so anymore.

    Harold sounds more like a pre-baby boom version of an old person. Neat, slightly prim, retired and now entirely at a loss. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it does feel a bit like a young person’s vision of what it must be like to be old, rather than an old person’s vision.

    I’m not yet old (though I have hopes one day to be so, the alternatives seem so much less appealing), but I am obviously older than I once was and one thing I’ve noticed is that not much changes inside. I’m a bit more confident, a bit less concerned about what others think, but I’m still basically the same person. Junichiro Tanizaki captures that tension between physical age and internal lack of aging brilliantly in his Diary of a Mad Old Man, this sounds though much more superficial.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I didn’t have any problem with Harold deciding to take on his journey — I am old enough that I know more than a few people who find that “retirement” is nothing but a void. And some do respond by doing something dramatic that involves their past (his relationship with Queenie in this case).

    After that, however credibility does get seriously stretched (e.g. doing this 600-plus mile walk in a single pair of deck shoes). And the phrasing, as you point out in your examples, is definitely hit and miss.

    I am sure you would not like the book and have an even harsher reaction than I did. Having said that, the Book Depository has it first on their current list of 24 editors’ picks and Indigo Canada is giving it pride of place on their home page. The marketing departments of those sellers obviously see an audience, even if it does not include you or me. :-)

    • Eileen Pierce Says:

      I packed up and moved to Mexico at 62, throwing everything — money, spirit, hope — into building an inn in the fishing village of San Pancho. I was hindered by rusty high school Spanish, a great deal of fear about what other people thought of me, a newly acquired sobriety and a wobbly sense of who I might be if I gave it a bit more thought. One thing for sure, Max, I changed from outside in — changing first my life and quite by accident a great deal of myself in the process. You could say I became acquainted with certain truths I had not previously been aware of. I did not walk 600 miles in a pair of deck shoes pursuing someone I had left behind…my, God, I would need hiking boots, an atlas and a great deal of the rest of my life to find all the people I accidentally left behind. Harold was rather lucky to have only the one. But I will tell you this, Max — people can and do change a great deal on the inside if they are curious and willing enough to contemplate the possibility that they may have strayed off course. Eileen

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Um, I wasn’t remotely saying that people don’t change. I was suggesting that Harold sounds unconvincing as a character, a 1950s version of what an old person is like.

        That’s a courageous thing you did Eileen and I salute it, but I never doubted that people (including older people) do courageous things. I just thought that Harold doesn’t sound that persuasive compared to say William Corker in John Berger’s Corker’s Freedom (there’s a review at mine if you’re curious, Kevin interestingly enough put me on to Berger which I owe him onging thanks for). Corker is a dull and quiet man from outside, but Berger shows us his rich internal life, shows how much is going on inside that those outside may not see.

        It’s the lack of that I was talking to. The mere fact he keeps walking isn’t that interesting, people do out of character things all the time. It’s the lack of character beforehand that sticks out.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I was wondering about how he managed for changes of shoes/clothes, but then forgot when I made my comment. You can get away with that sort of thing if the book isn’t otherwise realist in tone, but if it is it’s fair for the reader to start asking that sort of question.

    Of course, wondering about stuff like that is generally a sign that the author hasn’t fully pulled you into their tale.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      This is a perfect example of one of my “falling tree” books — once the tree starts to tilt to the negative, you can find all sorts of things wrong with the narrative. And, of course, if you are pulled into the tale, you conveniently would be filing the same unlikely things under the lable of “artistic licence”.

  11. Sigrun Says:

    Towards the end of your review you describe the book “as conventional as conventional can be,” I totally agree!
    I will be very disappointed if this book wins the prize – .

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I can understand why books like this get published and sell well — for many readers, they are warm and reassuring. I’m a little more confused about why juries put them on prize lists.

  12. gaskella Says:

    I went to hear Rachel talk about her book, having read and enjoyed it, (I was able to engage with Harold). It started off as a radio play, she’s a successful writer for radio, and it was written for her father who had cancer – he never got to see the book though. She said she welcomed being able to add all the detail into the dialogue,,,

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    gaskella: Thanks for that information about the radio play writing background — it shows.

  14. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    i just finished this book, and really had to struggle to get through the last half. While the first half was interesting, for me, it descended steeply in to mawkish sentimentality, and improbable plot. Because I love all the parts of England Harold passed through, I stayed with it, but overall was very disappointed in it. The repetition of the stories of key moments in his family added nothing, and frustrated me.
    That said, I would read another of Rachel’s books. she might be just warming up here.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sheila: I had a similar reaction — Joyce seemed to run out of things to say about halfway through the book and it got progressively weaker after that for me.

  16. littlegidding4 Says:

    Actually I wasn’t ready at all for what Harold found once he got to Berwick, and there was nothing sentimental about the description of Queenie’s plight (derived from the cancer type suffered from Joyce’s father). We are so used to cancer being boxed of, and the procedures as relatively routine (I write as one with a partner who has been through the mill) that I was genuinely shocked by the power of that description.

    I know several lower middle-class men who still don the collar and tie in retirement, though I agree that it’s a characteristic that will die out when those born in the 1960s reach retirement. In some ways I thought that Harold in his innocence and failure to communicate was like a nicer and more sympathetic take on Tony Webster in ‘The Sense of an Ending’.

    After ‘The Gathering’ I would rather slit my wrists than submit to another Anne Enright…

    I really enjoy your blog.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      There is no doubt that Harold strikes a responsive chord with some readers — I just wasn’t one of them. Tony Webster, on the other hand, did hit the mark for me.

      I was no fan of the gathering either but found The Forgotten Waltz to be quite good. I was thinking about it again just last week when another novel about the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, The Spinning Heart, showed up on the Booker longlist.

      • littlegidding4 Says:

        The Spinning Heart sounds intriguing, Kevin. Must look out for it once I’m allowed to start buying books again after December 31. I have a professional interest in the Celtic Tiger, so it sounds right up my street.

        I came to your Fry review by way of having seen your Booker section and hence your review of Swimming Home, which I’d read very recently – hence the strange time lag in the comment on Harold Fry.

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