Every once in a while, a book comes along that challenges the way I see myself as a reader. I like to think that I'm a good reader, that I'm generous to authors and open to unusual scenarios or styles, and able to tease out allusions and images and all that "between the lines" stuff. I probably don't get everything (hence my continued joy of rereading), but I usually feel like I do okay, which means it's rare for me to have a complete turnaround on a novel when I'm more than halfway through. This is why I was so surprised by my experience reading Rachel Joyce's novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
It's possible that I got stuck on the simple-seeming premise: essentially, the novel is about Harold Fry, who one day receives a letter from a woman he used to work with who is dying. He's very upset, and when he leaves to walk to the post box to mail his reply, he decides to instead walk to see her in person. This doesn't sound like much, but Harold is in his 60s, has no history of taking long walks, and lives in the south of England. Queenie Hennessy, however, is in a hospice in the north of England, practically on the border with Scotland. Harold doesn't return home to equip himself, and instead just continues walking in his yachting shoes, wearing a shirt and tie, with a rain jacket slung over his arm.
The thing is, we don't really know why Harold is walking. It seems a bit unbelieveable that a colleague from 20 years ago could rouse such activity in a man who is otherwise leading a fairly sedentary, boring life. Harold is retired, and although he's married it's pretty clear he and his wife don't have much to say to each other anymore. They have a son he never sees, and who only his wife talks to, and once the grass is cut he's at a bit of a loss as to what to do with himself. It did require a little suspension of disbelief for me to get over that, but once I was there, I very quickly became wrapped up in the story.
Harold spends most of his time on the road alone. He isn't a experienced walker, which means he's both slow to cover ground and quick to develop blisters and muscle pain. Alone with his thoughts, Harold starts reflecting on his life, and slowly his past is revealed in a tangle of memories. Harold's mother walked out on he and his father when he was a boy, and his father turned into a womanizer with no interest in his son. Then Harold met Maureen and fell in love. They married and eventually had their son, David, whom Harold loved very much but couldn't relate to. David was dark and moody, and very smart, and although Harold was filled with thoughts and feelings, he couldn't express them, which led to a great gap forming in their relationship. Because his estrangement from his son, Harold and Maureen grew apart too – she sided mainly with David and couldn't understand what was wrong with Harold.
This sad and unchangeable past is balanced out by Harold's walk. He called and told the hospice to tell Queenie that he was coming, and that she needed simply to keep living until he arrived. Of course, the walk isn't all roses, and Harold has many moments of uncertainty, pain, and fear that what he's doing is a complete waste. He makes it about a third of the way to Queenie before a newspaper does a story about him, and then things explode. People start joining him, calling themselves pilgrims for Queenie, and slowing him down. Harold doesn't like the big group or its slowness, but he feels responsible for them and can't bring himself to leave. Every town they pass through requires photos ops, and before he realizes what's happening, Harold's quiet little walk has been co-opted and sponsored and taken over.
As I was reading the novel I found myself wondering when a newspaper would cover the story, and how it would go, and Joyce's portrayal of how quickly things get out of hand is perfect. But, what I most enjoyed about the book (the pleasing surprise) is how the tone and momentum of the novel build the farther Harold has walks. It's a clever and lovely construction, and Joyce uses it to great affect. I don't want to spoil the sensation of reading this central part, but suffice to say, Joyce subtly opens up the novel bit by bit as Harold himself opens up to both his past and the world around him. It's a great marriage of content and form.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is told mostly from Harold's perspective, although as the novel builds Joyce does slip in chapters from the perspective of his wife Maureen. Without these, it would be easy to blame Maureen for Harold's unhappiness, but the carefully two-sided story of their empty (though not loveless) marriage is all the more real and heartbreaking for knowing both sides. Similarly, the reveal at the end, which does explain Harold's compulsion to walk to Queenie, is striking in how it manages to be both very simple and hugely difficult. That's a balance Joyce plays with throughout the novel, always managing to withhold a little bit while still offering up an engaging story about a man trying desperately to do something different.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
first published 2012 (cover image shown from Doubleday Canada edition)