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Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Harold and Maureen Fry do not have a happy marriage. Harold has retired from working for a brewery. He seems to do little in retirement, while Maureen spends her time perpetually cleaning the house and missing their son, David, who has left home. David had been far more intelligent than his parents and had done well at school and got into Cambridge University. Harold had never been close to his son, declining to hold him when he was a baby and not particularly getting on with him when he was older. They currently live in a house in South Devon.

The novel starts with Harold receiving a letter from a woman called Queenie Hennessy. He had worked with her at the brewery but they had not been in touch for many years. He learns from the letter that she is now dying from cancer in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, nearly 500 miles from where he lives. His immediate reaction is to write her letter but he admits that the letter is poor:

Dear Queenie, Thank you for your letter. I am very sorry. Yours Best wishes – Harold (Fry)

Nevertheless, he puts on his waterproof jacket and goes off to post the letter. When he gets to the letterbox, he hesitates, decides it is a nice day and goes on to the next postbox, and then onto the one after that. And then he just keeps going. He stops at a garage and gets something to eat. He talks to the girl selling the food, explaining his letter. She tells him about her aunt who had cancer and how a belief that she could get better helped her enormously. Harold is inspired and keeps on walking. Gradually, he realises that, despite the fact he has yachting shoes on his feet, no mobile phone, no rucksack, no suitable clothing, he is going to walk to Berwick-upon-Tweed to see Queenie. He stops at a phone box to tell Queenie that he is coming. She is asleep but he leaves a message saying that he is coming, that she should wait and that he will save her. The rest of the novel is about his epic journey to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Harold is ill-prepared for the walk. He has no experience walking, rarely walking very far at all. He has no maps and no equipment. As a driver, he is used to main roads so it is main roads rather than walkers’ trails that he follows, though that causes some problems. He does let Maureen know but she is sceptical and feels sure that he will soon turn round, even disguising his absence from the neighbour by pretending that he is ill in bed. Yachting shoes are totally unsuitable and soon he is getting blisters and pains in his leg. He makes relatively slow progress at the beginning and even takes some false turns. Gradually, things get better. People are very sympathetic and helpful. When the pain in his leg causes him to collapse, a Slovak woman, qualified as a doctor but working as a cleaner, takes him in and looks after him for a while, even giving him some of her ex-partner’s equipment.

Of course, Harold spends much time thinking and we learn a lot about his life. We learn about how his mother suddenly walked out on him and his father without warning, sending only a semi-literate card from New Zealand later, and how he was brought up by a succession of ‘aunts’ till, when aged sixteen, his father threw him out. We learn about his poor relationship with his son and how he and Maureen gradually became estranged. But we also learn how he misses her and how she misses him. We also learn about his job at the brewery and how he came to know Queenie and how they became close (but not lovers) and how she came to leave the brewery.

Harold has his problems on his walk, though at least initially, he sleeps in hotels and bed-and-breakfasts and eats reasonably well, till deciding, when it is warm, to sleep outside and eat whatever he can get. Things generally seem to be going all right. He is in touch with Maureen, though she is far from happy. But then a dog starts following him, and then people start joining his pilgrimage and then the media get hold of the story.

While not great literature, this is certainly a fascinating exploration of English quirkiness, well told, witty and, at times poignant. Joyce does not go for the obvious outcome and keeps us guessing to the end, both as regards how Harold’s pilgrimage will turn out and what happened with Queenie and Harold. It made the Man Booker prize long list.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Doubleday