Friday, August 24, 2012

Review : The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Harold Fry is recently retired from working in a brewery.  He is bored. He and his wife Maureen have been married for 40 years.  To put it mildly, their marriage has grown so stale that it is only the fact that they both give the same address and eat at the same table that corroborates that legal status.

Then Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, with whom he worked at the brewery, but who has not been heard from since she left town 20 years ago.  Queenie writes to say that she is dying and is in a hospice in Berwick upon Tweed.  She wants simply to say "goodbye."

Harold, pens a proper reply on proper stationery, and leaves the house dressed in dock-siders, shirt, tie, jacket, dress slacks, to walk to the corner to post his letter.  When he gets to the post box, he realizes he's missed the last pickup of the day, and decides to walk up the road to the next box.  Thus begins the journey of Harold Fry to save Queenie Hennessy.  A series of chance encounters early in his walk convince him that he should visit her personally, and that she will not die as long as she is waiting for him to arrive.

He has no cell-phone, no map (and he hasn't the vaguest idea of where Berwick on Tweed is in relation to where he lives in Kingsbridge), no protective clothing, no good walking shoes.  He has only an inner compulsion to see Queenie again, to keep walking.  When he starts out, he's not sure why.  He's not sure where he's going (physically or metaphorically), he's only sure that he must keep going.  He does have some spare change, and his debit card with him, so along the way he buys food, and simple sustenance items. He does call his wife after a bit tell her what he's doing and endure her less than encouraging responses.

Harold's journey is a story of the human spirit.  He meets people along the way, and is able to learn from all of them.  It also becomes Maureen's story, as the author shifts periodically back to Kingsbridge to show us the other side of the marriage, and how it came to the point where it is.  Harold's journey is not a straight path: he jigs, jogs, stops, starts, hesitates, falters, but in the end he accomplishes his goal.  He gets to Queenie's  

The symbolic elements in this book are too numerous to list.  The writing is elegant.  The characters are spot on.  Rachel Joyce has given us a heart-warming, heart-breaking story of life, of dreams (both fulfilled and long-abandoned), of hope and forgiveness.  It is a story to be treasured and  savored.There's a lot for discussion and I venture it will become a favorite of book clubs across the country. 

And by the way, my ARC did not have a map (the empty page indicated it was to be included in the final edition).  I googled to find a map of the UK, and kept it open as I followed Harold's journey.  Google Maps pegs it at 467 miles if you go on the M5, but Harold's 87 day on-again, off-again trek took him 627 miles.   The ending is dramatic, cathartic, and endearing.

This is a book you want to last 87 days, so you can take that walk with Harold and Maureen.  It will definitely be on my top of the year list. Don't miss it.

Booker Prize Long list
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher-Format: Random House, 2012, ARC 336 pages,
Subject: marriage, grief, introspection, journey
Setting: present day England
Genre: contemporary narrative fiction
Source: ARC from the publisher


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