Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), Rachel Joyce’s debut novel, is the deceptively simple tale of a sixty-something-year-old man who steps out of his Devon home to mail a letter but ends up walking to Berwick-on-Tweed instead (for American readers, that’s from the southwest corner of England to the far north, at the Scottish border: a distance of over 450 miles). Harold has had a letter from Queenie, a former colleague at the brewery where he worked, to tell him she has cancer and is in a hospice there. He has a reply all written and sealed up – it says little apart from that he is sorry to hear her news and is thinking about her – and tells his distant wife Maureen that he’s off to post it, but he walks past each mailbox he sees until he’s out of town altogether. An encounter with an encouraging gas station cashier makes him believe that effort on his part might just save Queenie, and so an inadvertent jaunt becomes a purposeful quest. Although he’s wearing nothing sturdier than leather loafers and a raincoat, and has nothing as useful as a map, he sets off to walk all the way along major roads. At first he stops every night at a B&B or hotel, and buys pub meals as he needs them, but when Maureen reminds him his retirement fund is not bottomless, he starts relying on the kindness of strangers, or sleeping outdoors when nothing else turns up.
As happens to the central characters of Ali Smith’s There But For The (2011) and Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (2012) – both of which Joyce’s novel resembles in tone – Harold becomes a bit of a minor celebrity. A local journalist profiles him and suddenly he has followers, fellow pilgrims who say they’re coming along to help Queenie but in reality are addressing lacks and neuroses of their own. Harold is so gentle and eager to see the good in others that he can’t find a way to cast them off, even when they start to impede his progress towards Berwick. He finally makes it, 87 days and 627 miles later (there have been many diversions along the way), and it seems like he and Maureen will get their marriage back on track, too – yet everything isn’t as rosy as it first appears.
It could all have added up to a smug, feel-good tragicomedy (perhaps this is what The Times’s book editor Erica Wagner meant by hailing it as a new One Day), but luckily Joyce is too clever for that. It took me a long time to warm to Harold because he seemed so ‘wet’ (that’s British slang for weak and womanly), and so uncomplicated as to be almost a simpleton. “He had always been too English; by which he supposed he meant that he was ordinary. He lacked color” and “he passed through life and left no impression. He meant nothing” are two descriptions that encapsulate my early impression of Harold. Yet Harold has a dark backstory: his mother left and his father was a serial alcoholic and womanizer; Harold himself was an alcoholic for a time, especially after his only child David committed suicide 20 years ago. It was at that time that he went crazy and vandalized his cretin boss’s office. Queenie covered for him even though it cost her her job – thus Harold’s obligation to visit her now before it is too late to express his gratitude.
Even though Joyce adds these layers of interest and meaning, she does occasionally resort to clichéd musings about the purpose of the pilgrimage: “in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others”; “The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other”; or, from a nun at the hospice: “maybe it’s what the world needs. A little less sense, and a little more faith.” Maureen’s summation of his journey is little better: “You got up, and you did something. And if trying to find a way when you don’t even know you can get there isn’t a small miracle, then I don’t know what is.”
And yet Joyce subverts these pat conclusions by making the climax of Harold’s pilgrimage rather ambiguous. Newspapers have reported that he’s given up, so no one is expecting him at the hospice; he doesn’t even knock on the door when he arrives. The next day he does go back to see Queenie (thank goodness – I might have hurled the book at the wall in frustration if he didn’t see her after all!), who has held on, as he encouraged her to do in his series of postcards from the road. But he finds her barely lucid, and literally speechless; her tongue has been removed, and the cancer is still so rampant that it’s turned one side of her face into a bulbous tumor. Harold leaves the gifts he’s amassed on the way, makes some small talk about how well Queenie looks, and shortly leaves to be reunited with Maureen. He has no idea whether Queenie knows who he is, or understands that he has journeyed the length of the country to see her. But Joyce then rewards readers with the briefest fragment from Queenie’s viewpoint: as she stares up at the light coming through Harold’s crystal, she remembers that a friend gave it to her when he came to say goodbye.
It’s neither the most melodramatic nor the most satisfying ending Joyce could have given readers, but it’ll do. More important is that Harold and Maureen have finally come to terms with the fact of David’s suicide – which Joyce cannily waited to reveal until the later chapters of the book – and decided not to blame each other for it. I don’t think this book will make the waves that One Day did, but I can agree with Wagner that it has broad appeal, a simple message about love and friendship in the face of purposeless suffering.
All the same, the boring central character and plodding pace of a trip through England detracted from my enjoyment. The best scenes are the ones where Harold meets random people with sad, sordid little stories to tell, like a posh old gentleman at a London station who is off to see his foreign lover and wonders whether he should buy him some new sneakers to replace his ratty ones. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is certainly a notable debut novel, but if you prefer your books a bit subtler and slightly less formulaic in format and approach, you might want to try Smith’s snappy There But For The instead. Nonetheless, I’m eager to read Joyce’s next novel, which has just released in the UK (alas, it’s not in print in the US until January, but Kindle users can get it right away): Perfect, about a woman who commits a hit-and-run while driving her son to school, might have just the right level of emotional complexity for this jaded reader.