The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

I absolutely loved this book. I had the experience I sometimes do where I start reading it one evening, immediately get drawn in, continue it the next morning and think, “I’m going to have to slow down reading this, or it won’t last more than a few hours, and it’s such a wonderful book I want it to last forever.” Then I abandon the attempt to read slowly and just race through to the end because I can’t stop myself. This, friends, was my experience with Harold Fry.

The plot is simple: Harold Fry, a retired man living a fairly staid and boring life in the south of England, receives a letter from an old acquaintaince, Queenie Hennessey, who lives at the other end of the country. Queenie is dying of cancer and has written to say goodbye. Harold, who hasn’t had any contact with Queenie for twenty years, initially plans to drop her a note in the mail, but when he sets off to the mailbox, he simply keeps walking. Somehow he becomes convinced that if he keeps walking, he can keep Queenie alive. He walks away from his wife Maureen and their chilly marriage, away from their house which is touched by sadness for reasons that gradually become clear, and north towards Queenie Hennessey.

Along the way the walk truly does become a pilgrimage, in ways that are funny, touching, and deeply (though not always conventionally) spiritual. The story of Harold’s past unfolds through his memories as the hardship of the walk forces him to examine them, and we learn that his marriage to Maureen, which at first seems simply to have slipped into late-life boredom with each other, has in fact been shadowed by a tragedy from which both Harold and Maureen are struggling to recover. As Harold makes his unlikely journey, Maureen, too, has to change direction if their relationship is to survive. But will it? And will Queenie survive cancer if Harold gets to her? And will Harold himself survive the walk?

All these are real and pressing questions, but this is not primarily a plot-driven book, although there were many things I wanted to know that kept the pages turning, including secrets from Harold’s past that Joyce does a masterful job of revealing gradually, letting the puzzle pieces fall into place. The main pleasure of this book, though, is in the journey itself, how the process of travelling and the people he meets along the way change Harold, how he discovers courage within himself and realizes how much he needs it, not just to finish the walk but to face both past and future, to forgive — others, but mainly himself.

This book is practically certain to make my top ten list this year, and it’s almost certain to share that honour with another book about a long and unlikely trek on foot — Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I gave a lot of thought, while reading this book, to why these two journey stories moved me so much and whether it matters greatly that one is a true story and the other is fiction. Harold’s trek is mainly believable, although there are a few things that defy belief — while I think a sixty-five year old man in reasonable health certainly could have done that walk under the circumstances described, I don’t believe for one second that he could have lasted more than a few days in the shoes he’s described as wearing (and to which he stubbornly clings even when he has the chance to buy or be given better ones), nor that he would have fared as well as he did when he abandoned his debit card and began relying on what he could forage in the wild or on the kindness of strangers. But the important thing with this story is not its verisimilitude: it’s not vital to believe that a man like Harold Fry could have done this walk, only to travel along with the fictional Harold as he does. His journey is really one everyone must take — not six hundred miles on foot over British motorways, but into the darkness of one’s own heart, the pain of one’s own past, to find the love and strength that remains.

This is a beautiful book and I highly recommend it.

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