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.