The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

  • Rachel Joyce
  • Random House
  • 336 pp.
  • October 12, 2012

Stepping out to mail a letter, a retiree in southern England who’s stuck in a marriage of quiet desperation keeps on walking.

Reviewed by Robert Swan

“Every happy family is alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

With all due respect to Tolstoy, this is nonsense. Families are miserable for reasons endemic to the human condition. Couples fall out of love; children disappoint; daily routines stultify; sex becomes uninteresting or nonexistent; dialogue grows stilted and ceases to be meaningful. One’s greatest early love becomes an object of indifference, and finally two people live alone, together. These are the unfortunate attributes of many relationships of long cohabitation and deep familiarity, which frequently, as the old saw has it, breeds contempt.

The eponymous hero of our story is a retired brewery employee stuck in just such a blighted marriage devoid of sex or affect. He is bored with life but seemingly complacent. His wife, Maureen, is a cranky harpy obsessed with domestic order and expects Harold to do what Harold has always done: Like Bilbo Baggins, he never does anything unexpected. Maureen’s character is beautifully captured by the author in a few deft brush strokes right at the beginning of the book:

“She took toast from the rack. She liked it cold and crisp….”

This has an almost musical cadence and an element of poetic meter, brief staccato machine-gun bursts of sound and meaning that leave us in no doubt about Maureen’s daily habits and attitude toward life. She is firmly grounded in the concrete. She is brisk, practical, efficient and — like Harold — deeply unhappy. That Harold and Maureen’s quiet, understated, gentle misery revolves around their son, David, very much a daily presence despite being grown and out of the house, quickly becomes evident.

On a lovely day in April Harold receives a letter from an old brewery colleague, Queenie Hennessy, informing him that she is dying of cancer. Harold pens an inadequate response to Queenie’s letter: “Dear Queenie, Thank you for your letter. I am very sorry. Best Wishes — Harold (Fry).” Having written, he goes out to post the letter, only to keep right on walking, from his home in Kingsbridge in the Southwest of England, all the way to Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the Northeast, past Hadrian’s Wall, a journey of hundreds of miles. Neither Harold nor Maureen, initially flabbergasted, irritated and angered by Harold’s decision, knows how he’ll make it. He is, by his own estimation, old, out of shape and ill-prepared for his journey, lacking even proper walking shoes or — here the modern reader shudders — his cellphone.

Harold’s commitment to his journey is initiated by an encounter with a girl at a garage who gives him both his first taste of a microwaved burger (he loves it) and some powerful advice: He must have faith. Harold believes that somehow, if he walks all the way to Queenie, she will live until he gets there and be saved.  His faith is not of the religious kind, but the reference to transcendence — of our material condition, of the circumstances of our lives and of our personal limitations — is unmistakable.

Along the road a reciprocal relationship blossoms with the people Harold meets. They provide succor or encouragement; in return they receive the grace of a new beginning. He encounters individuals from all walks of life and in every condition, among them an embittered, cynical actor; burnt-out businessmen; and an East European doctor from Slovakia, working in England as a house cleaner, who ministers to Harold’s wounded feet with Christ-like devotion. All these people — even the toughest and seemingly most inured to suffering — have one thing in common: They are evidently miserable. They have in a sense stopped living, have given up on life or given up on the possibility of happiness or redemption. Harold helps them reconnect with the possibilities and opportunities of existence. Inspiring them with his pilgrimage, he is in turn inspired by them to continue on his way.

Harold’s encounter with others gradually results in the formation of a large contingent of pilgrims who march with him on his journey, one of whom reminds him achingly of his son, David. He doesn’t want these people interfering and can’t get rid of them until a separatist faction under a creepy fanatic named Rich breaks off. They march their own way to Queenie (and arrive amidst a media cavalcade, before Harold). Harold sneaks away and is, mercifully, able to finish his journey in peace.

Maureen herself softens to Harold’s quest, finds (Platonic) solace with an elderly widower neighbor and mellows. In a symbolic moment of transformation, she decides to move into the bedroom she has not shared with Harold for years. She sniffs Harold’s pillow; she sniffs his clothes hanging mutely in the closet, rearranges them and hangs hers nearby. Symbolic proximity presages both forgiveness and renewed intimacy both physical and mental.

Does Queenie live? Do Harold and Maureen resolve their issues with their son, David? Do things “work out” for these people for whom, by the end of the book, the reader comes to have affection? I wish I could say, but Joyce has some surprises in store and I would do a disservice both to the author and potential readers if I revealed too much. The reader will be both intrigued and moved at the final denouement.

Joyce is a fine writer. It is evident that Queenie, like David, is for Harold and Maureen an absent but powerful reminder of regnant pain long submerged. These four lives intersect, not in obvious ways, and Joyce subtly allows the story to unfold over time, shifting registers from one character to another. Through descriptions of their behavior (readers should pay particularly close attention to Harold and Maureen’s interactions with David), their reminiscences and memories, the author provides a gradual unfolding of each character’s history.

The book is structured rather like a jigsaw puzzle; small pieces of information are added as the story unfolds, providing a clearer picture and a gradual understanding of the arc of each character’s experience through time and revealing the way they interrelate. As a narrative device this can be risky if not handled with care, but Joyce has carefully calibrated her effects and the gradual revelations strike the reader as entirely appropriate, coming at the right time in the right place, with a nuanced appreciation of tone and effect. The book is a pleasure on the level both of the story it tells and the careful craft with which it has been constructed.

There are also some missteps here. A few of Joyce’s characters devolve into caricature (to give just one example, Harold’s old brewery boss, Napier, is a stock misogynist lout without nuance). At times the plot seems contrived, with statements too neatly designed to provide Harold with a proper response or an obvious foil for an expected reaction. There is a predictable and wearying vilification of consumerism (one wonders if Joyce plans to profit from the healthy sales of her book), as well as a condemnation of the enervating effects of urban living, which, while understandable, ignores the benefits as well as the burdens of city life.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a wonderful book. It highlights the capacity of human beings to live with illusions that permanently scar them and, sometimes, irrevocably alter the trajectory of their lives for the worse. Thankfully, in the case of Harold Fry, redemption comes in the form of a long walk we have the pleasure of taking with him.

Robert Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.

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