Title: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Genre: Adult Fiction, Contemporary
The people he met, the places he passed, were all steps in his journey, and he kept a place inside his heart for each of them.
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Harold Fry receives a letter one morning from an old friend who has terminal cancer – she is saying goodbye. On his way to post his reply, he makes the decision to keep walking, in the hope she will stay alive to wait for him.
It has taken me a while to get through this book, but I think that reflects more on my busy timetable than the story itself. It is a very well-paced book, and Rachel Joyce is careful to reveal the plot slowly, in tandem with the steps Harold takes in his journey.
Having been fortunate enough to experience my childhood years with both sets of grandparents alive and well, I could see parts of them in the characters of Harold and Maureen (his wife). As a result, it was impossible to feel anything but affection towards Harold, even as his past came to light. I think even without that connection, I would have rooted for Harold. I felt his struggle every step of the way, every blister, every act of kindness given and received.
Inevitably, at a point in Harold’s walk, he is joined by a number of followers, all misunderstanding his reasons for walking, but with their own stories to share. As a pretty introverted personality myself, I could really sympathise with Harold’s reaction to these people, and felt awful for him when outspoken follower Rich began twisting the situation for his own gain. They wore him down, and I couldn’t help but wonder if without them he would have reached Queenie sooner, and their final encounter might have been different. Even so, this just reinforced what the walk meant to Harold – it became not just about reaching Queenie, but about helping other people to amend for his mistakes in the past.
It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside.
Much of the book also takes place in the part of England in which I live. All those fields and small villages passed through felt so familiar to me, and added an additional sense of intimacy between me and the events of the story. Harold is a typical Englishman in his mannerisms – his awkwardness and constant apologising reminded me of my own behaviour!
Beginnings could happen more than once, or in different ways.
Harold made this book for me, and I feel honoured to have been by his side for the whole journey, right up to the shocking encounter with Queenie that left me really shocked. The book also carries a really great message: it is never too late to change your life. Why accept unhappiness when life is so short? After finishing the book, I’ve been left feeling really inspired. I think it is too easy to get caught up in life’s routines, and I can see the appeal of Harold’s pilgrimage – how liberating it must be to leave all responsibility behind! After reading about his epic journey across England, I think I am going to dig out my old plans to walk up Mount Snowdon… if Harold can walk, then so can I!
Nothing is perfect, and I won’t lie – once or twice I found myself thinking “is he there yet?” Nevertheless, for bringing me to tears, and being a bittersweet but ultimately uplifting story, I really feel it is worthy of a five-star rating.