A couple of months ago, Isi invited me to be part of the jury for her English Review Competition and the winning entry was a review of this book by Ale. I hadn’t read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry at the time and Ale whetted my appetite so much that I decided to buy it. And so, during a business trip to Amsterdam this week (where I renewed my acquaintance with Gerard Bicker at the Rijksmuseum), I decided it was time to rectify the omission.
It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else 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.
Harold Fry has been retired for six months and simply doesn’t know what to do with himself. He has no hobbies and no ambitions; for him, retirement just seems to be the beginning of the downward slope towards old age and death. He lives in a modest suburban house, trapped in a strained marriage with his resentful wife Maureen; he tries to avoid being caught in awkward conversations with his lonely widower neighbour Rex; and he regrets his inability to have built a stronger relationship with his absent son David. And then, one day, something changes. Harold gets a letter from Berwick-upon-Tweed, from a woman called Queenie Hennessy who used to work with him. Queenie has terminal cancer and has written to say goodbye. Frustrated by his inability to find the correct words to respond – and with little sympathy from Maureen – Harold scribbles out an awkward note and heads off to the post box.
Then he walks past the post box. And the next. Soon he has decided that he won’t stop walking until he gets to Berwick-upon-Tweed, to say goodbye to Queenie in person. His journey becomes a matter of faith: keeping Queenie up to date with his progress through postcards, Harold comes to believe that as long as he keeps walking, she will keep living. And, as he makes the long, weary journey by foot up the spine of England, Harold finds that he is rediscovering the joys of life – the pleasure of looking at the countryside, or talking to people: strangers who frequently turn out to have their own sorrows and regrets simmering just below the surface. Moreover, as he tries to justify his extraordinary decision to Maureen, and tackles the issues that have never been laid to rest between them, Harold begins to see that a little distance can offer a great deal of clarity. His journey becomes not only a physical pilgrimage, but also a voyage through human nature, and an affirmation of the power of hope.
This is a gentle, good-natured, warm-hearted book and Joyce has a keen eye for detail. Her picture of middle-class suburbia is painfully accurate, down to her description of the little displays you see on window-ledges in front rooms, which act as barricades: ‘tender pieces of themselves that people staked as boundaries against the outside world‘. She shows us what modern life has become: a place where such boundaries are useful, because people don’t really take the time to stop and talk and understand. We go through life as self-contained entities, grieving that others don’t appreciate us, while never making any effort to take the first step ourselves. And when Harold literally does that – turning himself from just one of millions of lonely, unhappy people into someone who is trying to make a difference – it has an amazing impact on his own life.
Polite and slightly old-fashioned, he is always interested in the stories of the people he meets, who for their part regard him with the kind of astonished admiration that he has never elicited before. There was just one aspect of the plot that felt a little heavy-handed, to me (minor spoilers); and that was the way in which Harold’s journey is hijacked by others. These self-conscious, media-savvy do-gooders gradually pervert his walk into an event. Joyce makes pertinent points about the crassness of those who want to publicise all their good works, and how many of them are no less venal or arrogant or quarrelsome than the rest of us… but I felt it was laid on a bit thickly. And I didn’t truly believe that Harold would have simply let this grow to the proportions that it did – or, alternatively, that he wouldn’t just have snuck away in the middle of the night.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be won over by this book, because each of us will be able to relate to something either in Harold’s own life or in the lives of those he meets. And it is a wonderfully inspiring story. In some ways it reminded me of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, although I would say it has less subversive humour and greater emotional sincerity; Harold is also considerably younger than Allan, although initially at least he doesn’t seem like it. There are also similarities to The Alchemist, which has the same air of simplicity and the same strong underlying moral message. Like The Alchemist, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was occasionally slightly too sentimental for my taste but, like The Alchemist, it’s the kind of book that invites you to look at your own life in a different light.
Even the greatest journeys, after all, start with the first step out of the door.