The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is another contender for my favourite novel of this year.
Harold Fry is a recently retired English man in his 60s, who, one morning at breakfast, receives a letter from a work mate he hasn’t seen in twenty years. The letter is from Queenie Hennessy, who wrote to tell Harold she is dying.
After a struggle to find the right words, Harold writes back to Queenie, then lets his wife Maureen know that he is going out to post the letter.
Walking to the letter box, Harold is overcome by the inadequacy of the words in his letter to Queenie, so he decides to walk to the next letterbox to post his letter in an attempt to give more of himself to Queenie, and from the next letterbox he decides to continue to the town’s Post Office. As Harold walks he remembers Queenie and their friendship, all the while telling the story of the community he lives in as he walks past local landmarks, (the good butcher, the bad butcher who makes his wife unhappy, the neighbours, and so on).
When Harold stops at a garage to get something to eat, he tells the girl behind the counter that he is on his way to post a letter to a friend who is dying. In response, the girl tells Harold the story of her own aunt, who also had cancer. She tells Harold that if a person has faith, they can do anything, words which Harold mulls over as he continues his walk. Inspired, he phones the Hospice where Queenie is being cared for and leaves a message for her to say he is going to save her, that she is to continue living, because he is going to walk to her. Harold also phones Maureen to tell her of his plan to continue on to Queenie’s hospice.
Maureen is sceptical and non-supportive of Harold’s plan, although she has no control over his decision.
As he walks, Harold reflects on his unhappy marriage to Maureen, his poor relationship with his son, David, on his childhood, his working life and of course, his friendship with Queenie. Harold is a good man, but over the years, he and Maureen have been divided, rather than unified by their troubles.
Harold continues to phone Maureen at regular intervals to tell her of his travels. She misses him at home and also spends the time away from Harold reflecting on where they went wrong in the marriage.
The descriptions of the places Harold walked through give me the urge to put on a pair of yachting shoes, dump all of my possessions and go for a longish walk of my own. His pilgrimage starts in his home town of Kingsbridge, in the south of England and Queenie’s hospice is in Berwick, the most northern town in England. If you are imagining a map of England, Harold’s walk starts at the bottom left of the country and finishes at the top right, near Scotland.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an emotional journey for Harold, as well as a physical journey. The story is also an emotional one for the people he meets on his way to Berwick, most of whom are touched by his story. The ending is predictable, but still enjoyable.
I’m looking forward to reading The Love Story of Miss Queenie Hennessy, which sounds like a companion piece to Harold’s story.