The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Harold Fry didn't realise he was going on a 672 mile walk. His plan was just to post a letter at the end of the road whilst Maureen hoovered upstairs... but perhaps, just perhaps, whilst he keeps walking Queenie will live.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0857520647

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Harold and Maureen Fry were unremarkable: one long marriage, one adult offspring and a long retirement stretching out in front of them like a prison sentence. One morning everything changed. The catalyst was a letter from Queenie, an ex-colleague of Harold's. He knew he needed to respond and thought that posting a letter would suffice. However, a chat with a girl at the local petrol station made him realise that a letter couldn't be enough. He had to provide Queenie with hope... he had to walk.

This is the most gentle, delightful, amazingly heart-warming novel. In fact it made me do something no book has ever done before – half way in I actually found myself crying with happiness. (No, I wasn't hormonal.) This novel contains moments of hilarity, moments of deep sadness and every emotion in between. There is as good reason for this. I'm not familiar with any of Rachel Joyce's radio plays but this, her first novel, reveals her to be the Alan Bennett of her generation. Ms Joyce's powers of observation are finely honed. Every character in the novel, from Howard and Maureen to those deemed as' minor' in any other book have oceans of depth and interest due to the author's gift: the gift of being able to sum up worlds of hurt, fun and experience in one or two sentences.

As an example, take Harold and Maureen themselves. These are people we all know. (In fact the book blurb states that the author's children look for Harold along the street. He's that real.) They have the sort of marriage where, through the years, everything has been said. They now live in the same house but within individual, locked-in worlds excluding the other. They are both subsumed as their unspoken thoughts, desires, dreams and, indeed, love are lost in the banality of routine requirements. Their marriage is one of silent longing. Maureen longs to live through her son whilst Harold just longs to be visible again.

As Harold walks, the reader journeys with him, learning more as his character and past come to the surface as the onion layers peel away with each person he encounters. There is so much I'd love to quote and share with you but, once again, this is a novel where the discovery and manner of revelation are part of the effect. As a little hint, however, for pathos look out for the 'happy, content' mother cyclist and for a giggle there's the hiker who swears his wife is a fan of Jane Austen. The section in which Rex, the widower across the road, reveals such pain and loss with just a line or two about a toothpaste tube is a master class in entrusting the readers' intelligence and ability to interpret for themselves. As for the book's gut-wrenching twist revealed in the second major letter of the story... I half suspected it early on but dismissed it. I didn't want it to be so; these were people I cared about. Let that be a warning to you. Rachel ensures that no one survives reading this book as an onlooker or literary tourist. You will be emotionally engaged.

In the novel a character is described as being one who honours the real meaning of words rather than use them as ammunition. This line is also sums up Rachel Joyce. For, when it comes down to it, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is so many things. It's a satirical look at celebrity, it's an encouragement to look at relationships and unpick the past's mistakes before they contaminate the present, it's a celebration of life. It's also one of the best three books I've ever read.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to see if my comparison stands up, try Three Stories by Alan Bennett.

Buy The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is in the The Desmond Elliott Prize for Debut Fiction Published in the UK 2012.
Booklists.jpg The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is in the Man Booker Prize 2012.
Booklists.jpg The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is in the Richard and Judy Book Club Spring 2013.

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