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

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
Random House, 2012

When he woke up, retired 65-year-old Harold Fry probably didn’t know that he would be the man who would walk 500 miles to see a dying friend. Yet that is exactly what happens in Rachel Joyce’s national bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Although there is nothing spectacular or riveting about this story, it piques readers’ curiosities.

It begins when Harold and his wife Maureen’s lives are drastically altered after they receive a letter from Queenie, a former co-worker who is dying of cancer. Harold steps out to mail a brief response, unsure of how to express everything that remained unsaid between them. He eventually believes that if he walks the 500 miles up England to see her before she dies, she will wait just long enough. The extra challenge is that Harold travels with only the clothes on his back and a pair of yachting shoes. As he puts one foot in front of the other, readers will find themselves walking with him—comparing his life to theirs and wondering if they, too, could do what he has undertaken.

In an interview at the back of the book, Joyce states, “I tend to write about small, ordinary people who find themselves at an extraordinary point in their lives, equipped with only small, everyday words” (332). Although she never stops reminding readers that Harold is an ordinary man in an extraordinary position, she uses his small, everyday words to showcase flaws and limited knowledge, which is complemented by self-deprecating memories. After a while, Harold realizes that he’s walking not only to keep Queenie alive, but also to atone for his sins. Joyce writes:

“Why must he remember? He hunched his shoulders and drove his feet harder, as if he wasn’t so much walking to Queenie as away from himself” (70).

His journey is particularly haunting because, for a long time, he only has the road and his thoughts. As he meets new people, readers witness how thoroughly each person shapes his view of the world and grafts pieces of them into his being. Joyce writes:

“He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went” (90).

England represents one of Harold’s dominant encounters. It plays such a prominent role in the story that place itself becomes a character. Harold has been detached from the world for most of his life and is suddenly thrust into it. Despite his solitude throughout the journey, he finds a companion in nature and begins to prefer it to people. Through his close observations of England’s landscape, weather, and vegetation, Harold develops almost profound wisdom. In addition, natural occurrences remind him of events in his life just as often as people do. Joyce writes:

“It surprised him that he was remembering all this. Maybe it was the walking. Maybe you saw even more than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet” (43).

In this way, Joyce is teaching readers to explore their environments. She is commenting on the amount of knowledge that one can gain from a simple walk, and that nature can provide exactly what readers may be missing in their lives.

The journey changes when the media becomes involved and transforms a simple walk into a star-crossed love story with Queenie—“a perfect love story.” And yet, his walk is all about love: for his wife, his son, and for his friend. The difference between the love is the form: romantic, paternal, and platonic. Despite the media being portrayed in a corruptive light with a touch of group think, it may have had the story right this time—it just concentrated on the wrong form of love.

As the story repeatedly references the distance Harold needs to walk, readers may find themselves constantly humming “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers. The song’s comparison becomes particularly poignant because “you” could mean alternately Queenie and Maureen. Despite no romantic affair occurring, readers can be certain that Harold loved Queenie in his own bumbling and quiet way that never touched his consuming love for Maureen and their son, David.

In the end, when the readers think they know everything, Joyce punches them in the heart. She finally resolves a piece of dramatic irony that was the catalyst of the whole story. This information surprises the characters, and readers are left saying, “Well, duh.” But then Joyce unveils the heartbreaking ace up her sleeve, the piece of information that readers never see coming. It lifts a rosy lens from the readers’ perspectives and reveals a taint on every memory and piece of dialogue about just one character. The information sweeps back and changes the entire story, leaving readers shocked, dismayed, and sympathetic.

This is the type of book that, upon finishing, will make readers set it down and ponder in silence for awhile. Readers may find that the story crept up like the tide, swept over them, and tugged them out to sea. And they can either go with the current, or surface and forget the book’s lessons. It’s just a book, after all. A simple thing anyone can pick up. Much like walking.

Filed under: Book Review, Nicole Bartley, Prose