by Rachel Joyce.
Most of us are haunted by the ghosts of our pasts, a multitude of joys and regrets; one such man is Harold Fry. Harold is living an apparently routinely quiet retirement after a lifetime of dullness, conformity and underachievement when he suddenly, without warning, decides to do something extraordinary. Setting out to post a letter to a dying friend, he decides not to trust his message to the post, but to take it himself, on foot, walking 627 miles, from his Devon home to a hospice in Berwick on Tweed. Like a Zen monk, he begins to give away his possessions and lives on the kindness of strangers. His walk becomes a kind of pilgrimage to himself as relives the events of his surprisingly tragic life, coming to a kind of understanding of his long-repressed and deep-buried grief. As he walks, his mood turns, from shy uncertainty to joyous confidence, through hope and happiness and self-belief, then anguish and fear and finally, at the very end, a strange and hopeful joy.
Harold’s tale is told alongside that of his wife, Maureen. Left alone, she too, has her own inner pilgrimage, forced to come to terms with her own sorrows, and the coldness she uses as a barrier to shield herself from tragedy; helped on by the friendship of kindly Rex, the next-door neighbour of many years that she and Harold barely know.
The first half of this story reminded me more than a little of an old TV miniseries that I also loved, The Missing Postman, which I urge anyone who enjoyed this book to seek out – and why is it not on DVD?)
But the second half develops a very different tone. Harold’s joyous journey of self-discovery takes a decided downturn when the media get hold of his story and a predictable group of ‘Others’ come to join him on his walk – a very believable and keenly observed set of characters, though I would have liked to have seen more of Kate, she was the only character in the book who deserved more development than we got, every other character, all the people (and the dog) Harold meets along the way, were beautifully well-rounded and drawn.
I’ve rarely been so touched by a novel as I was by The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I was expecting a lightly fantastical, pleasant and heart-warming tale along the lines of Major Pettigrew or The Missing Postman, but this is no slight tale of an ageing man’s accidental pilgrimage. Though the writing is consistently and beautifully understated, Harold and Maureen’s emotions are not, they are raw and real. The predictable end is not in the least bit ‘bigged-up’ or over-blown, it is small and perfect, poignant and heartbreaking, entirely in keeping with the unassuming – and very English – tone of this remarkable book.