The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Rachel JoyceWhen Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else's life.
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I was completely captivated by this wonderful book from the first page. I know that I will re-read it, often, with unfading pleasure. It’s one of those special stories that don’t come along that often; a triumph of warm, compassionate writing, by turns uplifting, amusing, deeply sad, and magical.
Harold Fry is a recently-retired office worker. He lives quietly with his wife Maureen in the South Hams of Devon. One morning he receives a letter from Queenie, a colleague he hasn’t seen or heard from for years. She explains she is writing to say goodbye: she is dying. Her address is that of a hospice run by nuns at the other end of the country, in Berwick.
Harold is seized by the belief that if he walks from Kingsbridge to Berwick – nearly 600 miles – he will save Queenie, in an almost mystical deal with fate. But he has to walk all the way - no trains, planes, or automobiles – and he must start at once; there is no time to lose.
So he steps out of his suburban house in his jacket and tie, leaving his astonished wife behind him. He has no map, or phone, or compass, or waterproof, still less walking boots (he is wearing impractical yachting shoes). As Harold makes his painfully slow progress north, his dead marriage and a broken relationship with their only child slip further and further behind him – and yet, simultaneously, into increasing clarity and focus.
Queenie once did something wonderful and kind and unforgettable for Harold. And then she left the brewery they both worked for and he never saw her again.
Now, on his steady pilgrimage to her death-bed, he sends her a message. I am coming. Wait for me. Live for me.
Rachel Joyce’s writing is sublime; simple, yet wonderfully eloquent. As Harold trudges doggedly along in his silly shoes and unsuitable clothes, he meets other travellers on the road. Many are bemused by his quest, but some grasp the almost courtly nature of it.
I was reminded of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; this book is a series of vignettes; stories within the story. I loved the chapter headings – ‘Harold and the Barman and the Woman with Food’, or ‘Harold and the Physician and the Very Famous Actor’. They promise rich episodes, and do not disappoint.
The early 20th-century travel writer H.V. Morton (‘In Search of England’) would have loved this book. The descriptions of life on the rural – and urban – road are as good as anything he ever wrote. In fact this is as much a road book as it is the story of one man’s pilgrimage against despair.
The final chapter had me in helpless tears of mingled sadness and happiness. It will you, too. Enjoy this book. It is a rare and beautiful offering.
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