THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY
By Rachel Joyce
Random House, 2012, 978-0812993295
* * * * *
By outward appearances, Harold Fry is about as ordinary as they come. He lives in Kingsbridge, a small village in the English countryside of Dartmoor, where he spends time in his garden and largely avoiding his wife, Maureen. Harold is the poster boy for what Henry David Thoreau labeled “lives of quiet desperation.” Now an old-age pensioner (retiree), Harold has been the classic “must’nt grumble” Englishman who never made waves, and consequently never made a splash. He dutifully served a tyrannical boss at a local brewery–though he hasn’t had a drink in decades–sired a son who despised him, and managed to be such a disappointment to Maureen that the couple have separate bedrooms. At his own request, he had no retirement party at the brewery–not that anyone would have cared one way or the other.
If you can make such an individual the center of your debut novel and leave readers deeply moved, you’ve got a bright career in front of you. This book was nominated for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize; it didn’t advance to the next round, but Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which did win, had better be damned good to make me believe it was more deserving. Harold Fry’s life changes when he gets a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a mousy former colleague he hasn’t seen in over 20 years. It’s essentially a goodbye letter, as Queenie is in a Berwick-upon-Tweed hospice, dying of inoperable cancer. Harold scribbles his condolences and walks down the road toward the postbox… and keeps on walking.
Thus begins Harold’s unlikely pilgrimage. A set of ordinary circumstances leads Harold to believe that he can walk to Berwick, over 600 miles to the north, and that his odyssey will save Queenie. And so Harold walks, an old man wearing a tie, a sports coat, casual trousers, and a pair of boat shoes. The rest of the novel details the people he meets, the questions he ponders, the things he learns, and the unlikely phenomenon he becomes. No one, not even Harold, knows exactly what he hopes to accomplish–maybe it’s just that something had to change, or maybe it’s something more profound. Maybe it’s a miracle.
This unpretentious gem of a novel is miraculous all on its own. It’s about an old man walking, but it’s also about how we lose the things we once held dear and whether it’s possible to recover them, and about the kindness of some strangers and the unutterable vileness of others. It’s about hope and disappointment, dreams and reality, things extraordinary and prosaic, courage and foolishness, and when to remember and when to forget. It’s also the most affecting and deeply moving novel I’ve read in quite some time.—Rob Weir