The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce has been on my want-to-read list since its release in 2012, when it garnered plenty of rave reviews, so I was delighted when my neighborhood book group chose it for our June selection. Everyone in the group enjoyed this unique novel that starts out light but digs deeper as you read.
Harold Fry leads a very routine, ordinary life. He is retired and lives with his wife, Maureen, in an English village on the southern coast. A letter arrives one morning that shakes up Harold’s routine and changes his life. An old work colleague named Queenie has written to Harold to let him know she is in hospice and to say good-bye. Harold hasn’t heard from Queenie in twenty years, since she left both her job and the area suddenly. Harold is moved by this reminder of the past from an old friend and writes her a short note in reply.
Harold heads out the front door to mail his letter to Queenie…and he just keeps walking. He passes mailbox after mailbox and finally decides – after a fateful talk with a girl working in a garage – to deliver the letter to Queenie in person. For reasons even he doesn’t understand, Harold feels strongly that he must walk the entire 600 miles to Queenie in the northern-most town in England. He feels that somehow she will keep living as long as he keeps walking.
He is ill-equipped for such an expedition, since he just stepped out to walk to the mailbox, but he feels that that is part of his quest, too – to make his walk just as he is, in his boat shoes and light jacket. Maureen is not too happy when he calls her from a couple of towns over to tell her of his intention, but he keeps walking. Along the way, Harold meets all kinds of interesting people. More importantly, as he walks, he thinks and delves into long-forgotten memories.
The most interesting, clever thing about this novel is the way that the tone matches the content. It starts out as a light, fun story, with plenty of moments of humor. Similarly, Harold’s thoughts start out fairly shallow, as neither he nor Maureen have thought about or talked about anything of importance in a long time. As he walks, though, the layers begin to peel away, and he gradually digs deeper into his thoughts and memories to sorrows and pain that he has buried for a long time. Meanwhile, back at home, Maureen gets over her anger and actually begins to miss Harold for the first time in a long time.
The story is filled with the kind of philosophical musings I love in a book, as Harold shares his growing insights. I marked many passages I could relate to, like this one, about human nature and meeting other people:
“He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and this was the dilemma of being human.”
This unique novel has two levels – Harold’s real-time adventures as he walks and his internal musings as he excavates long-buried feelings. Along the way, the mystery of what happened between him and Queenie and why she left is gradually revealed, as Harold allows himself to remember what happened. Meanwhile, back at home, Maureen is similarly facing her own memories and sorrows for the first time in decades.
Our book group universally enjoyed this one-of-a-kind novel about a physical and emotional journey. No one rated it lower than a 7, and it garnered several 9’s and 10’s in our group. Its depth surprised many of us, and we found we had a lot to discuss. Many of us, myself included, are now interested in reading its sequel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, in which Queenie writes to Harold during his long walk, all about her life and her secrets. Rachel Joyce is a talented author, and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.
320 pages, Random House