Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

Harold Fry is sixty-five years old, the sort of man who thanks the speaking clock, a gentle-man in the truest sense. Six months into his retirement he spends his days sitting in a chair, and he and his sour wife Maureen barely speak. When he learns from a letter that a dear friend is dying, he sets out to post a reply to her. And then he just keeps walking, in his yachting shoes and without his mobile phone, towards Queenie's bedside six-hundred miles away.

Before I picked up this book I felt the premise of Harold's journey was somewhat far-fetched (maybe even "unlikely"), but the book handles it well and makes it seem strangely plausible. Anyway, it hardly matters whether or not a sane man would decide to walk six-hundred miles in order to save a friend's life, because it's not the journey itself which is of interest. What really resonates with me, even weeks after reading it, is what Harold considers and learns as he thinks about his life. It addresses the regrets and "what ifs", the changes inherent in growing older, and the trials and challenges which can alter the course of our lives. More than that, it addresses them gently, thoughtfully and effectively. One part which resonated a great deal with me, for example, was Harold's memory of his mother abandoning him when he was twelve. In a letter to her "Deer son" she told him that "muthering" was not for her. Harold was crushed not only that she had gone, but that she couldn't even spell correctly in her final communication to her young son.

I found even the minor characters compelling and unusually well-rounded. From the businessman concerned about his rent-boy's shoes to the disillusioned film star, each is fascinating and contributes to the story.  Then there's the writing, which was so good that I am planning to use the first few pages in a writing club as an example of show, don't tell. 

There was much emotion in the book, heightened by the fact that it was at odds with the narrative's matter-of-fact tone and Harold's stiff upper lip and polite resolve. The relationship between Harold and Maureen was beautifully drawn and very moving, but it was the shock revelation at the end (although I suspect many readers, like me, will be kicking themselves for not having guessed at it all along) which really inspires the tears.

A truly excellent book, and one which will stay with me for a long time.


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