Harold and Maureen are a retired couple, driven apart emotionally by the actions of an absent son. One morning Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a friend from his past. She has cancer and she is dying in a hospice in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, the other end of the country. Harold writes a reply and walks to the nearest postbox. But he doesn’t post the letter there, he carries on, first to the next post box and then to the post office and then onwards, to put off posting his final words to Queenie. Then an unsuspecting girl in a garage gives him the idea; he will walk to her, whilst he is walking she will live. He will save Queenie.
Whilst not religious, Harold’s walk is a true pilgrimage. He suffers blisters and rejects creature comforts. As he walks he meets people and shares their confidences, it is easier for them to unburden themselves to a passing stranger than someone close. Harold experiences the kindness of strangers as he tells them of his mission.
I don’t live in Devon, but the next county over and I grew up near Kelso (somewhere briefly mentioned in his travels). The trip from south coast to Berwick is one I am familiar with but by train, and in more recent years by plane, because it’s a long way. I couldn’t imagine walking it ever and I’m less than half the age of Harold. He takes a long time to get out of Devon, and the bulk of the story takes place in the south west. Rachel Joyce lives in Gloucestershire so perhaps is a much more familiar area for her to write about. Still, it had that extra touch of a personal connection for me.
I felt the character of Maureen was a little flat and stereotypical at the start. As their story unravels, she becomes more real and some of the events in their past could explain it but I would have liked her to be a little more believable from page one. Harold and Maureen’s relationship is reflective of many that go on behind closed doors. Together because they have been for so long but essentially living apart from one another.
I got a bit confused at times when Harold lapsed into his memories. It wasn’t always clear what was present day but he comments on past and present merging in his mind so it may have been intentional. Reading between the lines, I worked out what was going on quite early but the journey is more important than the final reveal in any case.
At one point Harold is proud that he is averaging 8 miles a day. Even if he’s only managing to walk as a slow 2mph then that means he was only walking 4 hours a day. I think the author needed to give him a little more credit, especially once he had found his stride. If I was walking to save someone’s life, I wouldn’t be dawdling so much.
I liked the snippets of British life that Harold observes as he walks. From the hedgerows to the random things left out on streets and the odd characters that we would normally try and ignore.
At the centre is message that we shouldn’t take life for granted. Behind the pain of living, there is goodness in people and we should have a little faith. Not in god but in others and yourself. It’s both sweet and moving and will leave you reaching for the hankies.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is Rachel Joyce’s first novel however she has written many a play for Radio 4. It has been chosen as one of the Waterstones 11 for 2012 and will be available in hardback and ebook editions from 15th March 2012 from Doubleday in the UK. Thanks go to Transworld for providing me with a copy for review.