The backstory: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the first novel by Rachel Joyce, was on the 2012 Booker Prize longlist.
The basics: When Harold Fry, a retired man who lives in southern England, receives a letter from an old co-worker and friend, Queenie, saying goodbye because she is quite ill, he sets out to post his reply letter. Instead of stopping at the mailbox, however, Harold keeps walking so he can say goodbye in person. Along the way, he remembers, thinks and meets a quirk cast of characters.
My thoughts: From the first pages of this novel, there is a familiarity to its characters. Harold and his wife, Maureen, seem ordinary and the reader's first glimpse into their lives features the mundanesness of life. Rachel Joyce's observational prose, however, elevates the story. This early passage illustrates the novel itself: "He knew he was going to reach Berwick, and that all he had to do was to place one foot in front of the other. The simplicity of it was joyful. If he kept going forward, he would of course arrive." There is a simplicity to this novel, but there is also a joy to it. While the story itself is straightforward, Harold's interior journey is not.
In spite of its charms, The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry fell flat for me at times. The cast of characters Harold meets along the way became dull. Harold himself is the only constant in this novel, and I never fully warmed to him. His interior monologue featured what felt like a faux innocence about his journey and his life. Many will adore and celebrate Harold, but my inner cynic rolled its eyes at times when this tale became too sweet. What saves this novel from these potential pitfalls is Joyce's writing. As my cynicism became more pronounced, a passage full of wisdom about travel and life would bring me back.
Favorite passage: "Harold thought of all the things in life he’d let go. The small smiles. The offers of a beer. The people he had passed over and over again, in the brewery car park, or on the street, without lifting his head. The neighbours whose forwarding addresses he had never kept. Worse; the son who didn’t speak to him and the wife he had betrayed. He remembered his father in the nursing home, and his mother’s suitcase by the door. And now here was a woman who twenty years ago had proved herself a friend. Was this how it went? That just at the moment when he wanted to do something, it was too late? That all the pieces of a life must eventually be surrendered, as if in truth they amounted to nothing? The knowledge of his helplessness pressed down on him so heavily he felt weak. It wasn’t enough to send a letter. There must be a way to make a difference."
The verdict: While I never fully connected with Harold himself, I did enjoy his journey. At times I felt dismissive of this novel as 'charming' or 'quaint', and while it is both of those things, Joyce's writing elevates this novel. She is a writer to watch.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 338 pages
Publication date: July 24, 2012
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