Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

So, it is Boeke and Booker season, and since I do try to stay au fait with what mainstream Western literature is being name-dropped, I petulantly demanded a copy of Unlikely Pilgrimage because it was nominated for the Booker and likewise was the darling of many store managers. While most of the time I believe that no one else has my taste in books, (so much solipsism) I am always curious as to why a particular book generates its own press through the love of readers rather than the marketing machines of publishers.

When one considers the sheer number of books published every month, it takes something for it to be lovingly handsold. Sometimes, it’ll only take one bookseller to promote the ink out of the damn thing to get it going amongst several bookstores. This was particularly evident with Night Circus, a debut author’s Nanowrimo work that probably would have just stayed under the radar otherwise but was picked and loved hard before its release date. (Its themes lent itself well to store decoration too. That always helps.)

Which brings me to Unlikely Pilgrimage. Don’t get me wrong; I loved this book. I polished it off in one sitting, and not just because I was avoiding housework. If it were a movie, it would be blatant Oscar bait but that isn’t a slur against the qualities of the book. Let’s look at the basic premise. An old man in an unhappy marriage with a shrew of a wife gets a letter from a friend he hasn’t seen in 20 years. She’s dying of cancer and just wanted to let him know and thank him for his past kindness. It sets off a journey of thousands of miles, which Harold starts off in yachting shoes (I didn’t know such things exist, but clearly I’m not rich enough to know that) and with his wallet and phone.

Inspired by a girl in a garage foodstop (in the movie, she’d be played by Zooey Deschanel, she of the poorly spelt first name), he decides that by walking to Queenie, he will save her. His journey is followed by thousands on social media and the news, which is a touch I rather enjoyed. He undergoes physical change (oh, Hollywood loves that) and is ultimately redeemed by the challenges he undergoes. He is as middle-class as…whatever middle-class British people love. Oxo? Downton Abbey? Tea?

Harold (who should be played by Clint Eastwood) is not an inherently loveable man. He is emotionally stunted and grew up with an absent mother who really can’t spell and a drunken father who somehow manages to bed many women despite being utterly revolting. I admit that bothered me a great deal, since non-functional alcoholics are not known for their massive charisma and desirability. Harold’s wife, Maureen (played possibly by Meryl Streep in this Oscar-nominated tale of moving courage etc), is less than impressed by his departure and blames him from afar for everything that went wrong ever. Their stories play out apart from each other for most of the book, and as Harold walks, he shares with us the many fuck-ups of his life while Maureen realises that absence makes the heart grow fonder and that maybe over the years she’s slipped into the easy groove of being a harridan of a woman. The whole ‘things don’t grow here’ metaphor was a little heavy-handed, but otherwise Harold and Maureen are fairly well fleshed out in a world of books where we don’t get treated to to this kind of thing. Which is ridiculous, since only movies have to condense characterisation to five lines.

That being out of the way, the writing really is quite tender and lovely. There are kind lines, like ‘it was as if the world only put its lights on when Harold was near’. I am a sucker for sweetness, and this book is full of it. Like Wonder it emphasises the kindness of strangers. It also has some transient characters who are genuinely moving. Take the example of the elderly man, who takes a train to see his young lover every Thursday, and weeps that the man he loves has holes in his shoes and his feet might be wet.

“He was a chap like himself with a unique pain; and yet there would be no knowing that if you passed him in the street , or sat opposite him in a cafe and did not share his teacake…And what no one knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.” – pg 86

Harold walks, and I loved his determination and all the people he meets. The Slovakian woman who is a trained doctor but works as a cleaner and who is waiting for her partner to come home. The actor who may or may not be Colin Firth, the small scruffy dog that walks alongside him for a part of the way. The book is made up of many small incidents and a fairly wide cast, but ultimately it is Harold’s story and the more he walks, the more we find out about him. I won’t say more than that, other than the ending being well handled without being too saccharine, but I did cry. Especially for this part:

‘You’re right. It wasn’t even funny,’ said Harold, wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. For a moment, he looked sensible again. ‘That was the thing, love. It was ordinary. It must have been funny because we were happy’.

I was finished with that line, especially when I shared it with my Handsome Physicist. Don’t let the Booker-baiting nature of this book stop you. It is a genuinely beautiful read, and it is worth getting a UK edition. It is very English and I imagine a great deal of that will be gutted to make the book palatable to an American audience. The chapter illustrations are also gorgeous. This is a book filled with kindness and the jagged edges of human pain and it is definitely one of 2012’s best offerings.

By Marco Cibola for the Washington Post
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