Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Harold Fry lives with his wife, Maureen, in the nice coastal town of Kingsbridge in Devon. Since his retirement he has found it hard to fill his time. His marriage is a frosty one. He dearly wished he could speak to his son, but he can’t.

Then one morning a letter arrives in the post from an old work colleague of his, one he hasn’t heard from in twenty years. The post mark is from Berwick-upon-Tweed. However, the news isn’t good. The woman, Queenie Hennessy, has terminal cancer.

The letter completely shocks Harold; it takes him a little time, but he manages to cobble together a letter in response. Then, while his wife is still doing the housework, he walks to the post box to mail it, only he finds that he can’t stop walking.

What began as a quick errand down the road is in fact a monumental journey of faith and discovery. All he has with him as he starts his walk is what he is wearing (a completely unsuitable outfit including a shirt and tie and yachting shoes) and what he is carrying. He has no map and no mobile phone. But he has something far greater; the belief that he can save Queenie Hennessy’s life.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Indeed, it is very cleverly written. It is both light-hearted, almost funny in places, and yet in others it is so terribly moving, so terribly poignant that you might need to put down the book and compose yourself before reading on. A little like Harold’s journey.

Harold is in fact making two journeys; the physical one where he is walking the length of Britain for Queenie Hennessy, and the one that takes him through the past and through his memories. This latter journey slowly reveals why it is that Harold is walking and what exactly made him into the man at the beginning of the walk.

The character I found myself most drawn to was that of Maureen. I felt for her because she was suffering from the same painful memories and inner turmoil as Harold but whereas he manages to channel that energy into walking, she also has to deal with being left behind.

The book is extremely well-written; the author uses the most simplest of language to express the most complex emotions. The dialogue is good, and the descriptions of the places that Harold visits on his journey allow the reader to visualise where he is. However, I think it is the people that Harold meets on the way that add the colour to his pilgrimage.

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