Saturday, June 25, 2022

Rachel Joyce - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Recently retired, sweet, emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his passivity by a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old friend, who he hasn't heard from in twenty years. She has written to say she is in hospice and wanted to say goodbye. Leaving his tense, bitter wife Maureen to her chores, Harold intends a quick walk to the corner mailbox to post his reply but instead, inspired by a chance encounter, he becomes convinced he must deliver his message in person to Queenie—who is 600 miles away—because as long as he keeps walking, Harold believes that Queenie will not die.
So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or cell phone, one of the most endearing characters in current fiction begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside. Along the way, strangers stir up memories—flashbacks, often painful, from when his marriage was filled with promise and then not, of his inadequacy as a father, and of his shortcomings as a husband.
Ironically, his wife Maureen, shocked by her husband's sudden absence, begins to long for his presence. Is it possible for Harold and Maureen to bridge the distance between them? And will Queenie be alive to see Harold arrive at her door?

Comment: This book has a very good average of positive reviews and between that and the blurb, I felt interested enough to want to read it, and that is why I added it to my TBR.

This story begins when Harold Fry, a sixty something old man, receives a letter from Queenie Hennessey, an old co-worker he had for a while at the brewery where he worked all his life. Queenie went away after a problem and now, after decades of not knowing what happened to her, she writes a letter telling him goodbye because she is dying. 
This acts as a switch on Harold's brain and although he planned on going out to post a reply letter, something happens and he just can't seem to want to spot walking. He decides in that moment he will just keep on walking, without any preparations nor plans, until he reaches Berwick upon Tweed, where the nursing home where Queenie is staying is located. 
The problem is that Harold lives in Kingsbride, the complete opposite of Berwick upon Tweed on the map and the road is quite long... will Harold be successful on his journeys? The physical and the emotional one?

This is a road trip kind of novel, where the main character - and those who know him - is traveling with a purpose but clearly there's another journey going on, namely related to the character's emotions and feelings. The difference is that the main character is walking, nor driving, and there's more time to think on what kind of things cause and caused him worry and pain and sorrow.

The title says it well, Harold is on a pilgrimage, as one would do when paying a penitence or a promise as we sometimes hear about modern pilgrims doing religious paths. It is true people can now do those as just an experience, as curiosity, as a challenge, without ulterior motives associated with them, but in this case Harold spontaneously decides to walk convincing himself that if he does so, Queenie will wait - he sends postcards letting her know about his progress - so she can live and he can still say goodbye.

I just can't ignore the need practical logistics, to be honest.... someone just leaving the house with everyday clothes and shoes and walk to the opposite side of England...on the other hand, this is the most whimsical and dreamlike part of the story. That someone can do something so special and radical. Harold starts by staying in small hotels or pensions but at a certain point, he decides to not carry as much weight with him, both in physical objects and in worries. Of course one can read this as a way of him processing his past pain and regrets and wanting to advance with less guilt.

Although it isn't said until the last part of the story, it is rather obvious Harold is carrying guilt over something in his past, in particular his relationship with his son, which is non existent. We get glimpses and passages of Harold's memories and we know his marriage with his wife Maureen isn't good either. There are some chapters focused on her back home and how she reacts to all this, so the picture starts to make sense... I'll be honest: I kind of figured the whole thing just by how the author wrote some things. It's just difficult to keep a secret when the story is structured this one and with more than one central character involved.

An interesting element is, as expected, the kind of people Harold meets on his journey or what he is made to feel or think because of that. Interactions with others, knowing a little of their life stories does not erase Harold's past but gives him perspective and while emotional pain might never truly go away, there are ways to cope, to let it simmer instead of pinching and I think this was done in a very sensitive way, no harsh or radical actions making everything unrealistically fine.

The end is what one would expect, considering how the plot moved along and what was said about the characters' conditions. I liked that the author didn't fantasized other possibilities, because it did give credit to Harold's choices and the meaning of what he did. Some details still surprised me and added something extra to this whole situation, but I felt happy with how the story ended.

Another interesting element, for me, was to check the path Harold took, not only because at the end of the book there was a map (I think it should have been included before the story begins, though) but also because I was able to check google maps and see where he was going. The path wasn't the quickest I suppose, but it allowed Harold to meet interesting people and I could imagine I might be walking alongside him in some of those areas.

All in all, this was a satisfying book to read, somewhat bittersweet but I think this is not a surprise for any reader, thinking about the tone of the story alone. I would recommend this to other readers, but I'll be honest and say that, despite there being a book about Queenie, I don't feel like getting it on purpose...perhaps if I were to find it at the library....
Grade: 8/10

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