I love quirky novels, as you’ve probably figured out by now. When I read the publisher’s description of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, it sounded like just the kind of unusual novel I love to read. It stole my heart and I believe it will steal yours as well. This is a story that’s going to appeal to men and women for a wide variety of reasons and that’s all I’m going to say at this point. To make it even better, I won an advance readers copy (ARC) that I’m paying forward so one of you can win it in today’s giveaway!
Harold Fry is retired and living with his wife, Maureen, in the southern England village of Kingsbridge. If you asked him, he’d probably say he’s rather at odds with what to do with all of this spare time. If you asked his wife, she’d quite likely say that he’s always under foot, mopes around, and is constantly messing up her house. Maureen is one of those women who clean incessantly and appears hypercritical. Harold and Maureen have basically called a truce in a long-running battle, i.e., they co-exist. The reason they’re so detached is a spoiler, so you won’t read about it here.
They have an adult son, David. Maureen would say he’s more like Maureen’s son and a stranger to Harold. To hear her tell it, she practically raised him all by herself. She phones and talks to him all the time, mostly about Harold. They’re very close and, of course, she’s left David’s room exactly as he left it when he moved away from home. Harold, on the other hand, would say he wishes he had done more as a father when David was growing up so they could have been closer. Harold has some definite regrets about that.
“Upstairs Maureen shut the door of David’s room quietly and stood a moment, breathing him in. She pulled open his blue curtains that she closed every night, and checked there was no dust on the windowsill…She kept the room clean because she was waiting for David to come back, and she never knew when that would be.”
One day Harold gets a letter from a work friend he had lost touch with 20 years ago, Queenie Hennessy. Queenie is writing him to say goodbye, because she’s in a hospice in the northern England village of Berwick-upon-Tweed and she’s dying. To say Harold is shocked would be an understatement. He owes Queenie a lot and he can’t believe such a vibrant woman could be dying. He’s not sure what to do since he doesn’t consider himself an expressive man. He looks at cards but none of them seem to fit. Finally he settles on writing her a short message.
The next day he heads off to mail it in his normal retirement uniform of casual clothes and deck shoes. He plans to drop it in the first post box he finds, a walk of just a few minutes. When he gets to the box, he realizes the card would go out sooner from the village post office and it’s not a long walk, so he walks on. When he reaches the post office, he realizes it’s a beautiful day and he’s not tired so he decides to walk to the next village’s post office because he’s heard mail goes out even faster from there.
“It was not like Harold to make a snap decision. He saw that. Since his retirement, days went by and nothing changed; only his waist thickened, and he lost more hair. He slept poorly at night, and sometimes he did not sleep at all. Yet arriving [sooner] than he had anticipated at a postbox, he paused again. He had started something and he didn’t know what it was, but now that he was doing it, he wasn’t ready to finish.”
By the time he reaches the post office, he’s had a bit of time to think and he realizes that he owes Queenie a lot and a card or letter just won’t do. He’s enjoyed his walk more than anything he’s done since he retired. Then he meets a young girl while eating his lunch and he has an epiphany. He quickly scribbles a note to Queenie, telling her to hang on because he’s coming to the hospice to see her – that is, he’s going to walk all the way to her village in northern England to see her and she must stay alive until he gets there.
“The girl nodded, ‘My aunt had cancer,’ she said. ‘I mean, it’s everywhere…You have to keep positive, though.’
Harold stopped eating his burger and mopped his mouth with a paper napkin. ‘Positive?’
‘You have to believe. That’s what I think. It’s not about medicine and all that stuff. You have to believe a person can get better. There is so much in the human mind we don’t understand. But, you see, if you have faith, you can do anything…I don’t mean, like, religious. I mean, trusting what you know and going for it. Believing you can make a difference…
Harold felt he had never come across such simple certainty in such a young person; she made it sound obvious. ‘And she got better, did she? Your aunt? Because you believed she could?’”
And so Harold begins his journey – a walk across all of England in deck shoes. He hasn’t brought anything with him because he only planned to walk to the nearest post box. Along the way, he dutifully phones his wife, picks up souvenirs as gifts for Queenie and sends her postcards urging her to hang on. He walks through noisy cities, bustling villages, and through the blessedly quiet countryside. He also meets all kinds of people and discovers human kindness everywhere he goes. He certainly has a lot of time to think and ponder his life, the good and bad. And he begins to change…
“He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.”
Will he be able to cope with the stresses of such a journey? Will he survive his walk? Will Queenie survive until he can get there? What will happen to his relationship with Maureen and David along the way? How will Maureen cope with his decision to walk to another woman? What was his relationship with Queenie all those years ago? And, last but most important, who will Harold be at the end of his journey?
Harold’s journey is one of intense physical, mental, and emotional trials and revelations. I sat reading in constant awe of this man. I kept thinking of Henry David Thoreau and On Walden Pond, and journeys of the soul. I thought Harold’s deck shoes alone would do him in many times! The quirky people, the kind people, and even the hucksters he meets along his walk make Harold’s journey as much fun as it is profound. I was almost as touched by them as by him. For someone who professed no faith, he had an astounding belief in Queenie’s ability to stay alive if he just kept walking toward her. His memories along the way reveal the truth about his marriage, his relationship with Queenie, and who he is deep beneath the everyday details.
Rachel Joyce captured my heart with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I rolled along from page to page on an emotional roller coaster, laughing out loud one minute, weeping the next, and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to put this novel down until I had double vision at night. The insight Harold gains on this transformational journey is something I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Do I even need to say how much I loved this novel? Do I even have to say I highly recommend it?
Learn why Rachel Joyce wrote this beautiful novel:
Can’t wait to read it?
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was published on July 24, 2012, so it should be available from your favorite bookseller below. Just click the button to go there to get it.
I’d love to get your comments on The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce, and/or this review. BTW: If you like novels about people in the English countryside, you might also like the bestseller, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Click here for our review of that novel.
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One lucky reader will win an ARC of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce!
1) The deadline for entries is Saturday night, 8/25/2012, at 11:59pm EDST. No entries after that date/time will be eligible.
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