"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry"

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Harold and Maureen Fry are a couple we recognize immediately. They are neighbours from down the street or maybe an aunt and uncle in our own family. They are settled, unremarkable people, as most of us are when looked at from a distance, but up close the picture looks different. The passive facade thinly covers years of living with unspeakable pain.

When Harold receives word that an old friend is dying, he writes back with all the usual expressions of concern and sets out on the short walk to the mailbox. Something in him is unsatisfied with the inadequacy of his note, so he walks past the first mailbox thinking he'll drop it in the next one. He passes that one too, and after several more, decides he will walk the length of England and deliver the note by hand.

Maureen at first doesn't know why he hasn't come home, and after he calls, doesn't understand. Angry, afraid and humiliated, she tells their curious neighbour that Harold is in bed with a twisted ankle. As the days pass, the truth comes out, becomes public, and Harold's pilgrimage stirs the imagination of the nation. As always, what the press portrays is nothing at all like what is really going on in the lives of Harold and Maureen.

I was drawn to this book by the word "Pilgrimage" in the title - I love a tale about somebody walking somewhere - but came to love it for it's insight into human frailty and our capacity to carry on in the most difficult circumstances. Many times while I was reading I would come across a well-worded thought and think "Yes! That's exactly the way it is." I think most people will find something of themselves - their own fears, disappointments, hopes - in this couple.

I enjoyed the writing. The dialogue is good and the sentences uncluttered. It has that compact, British wording I like so much. British authors seem able to say things in fewer words than the rest of us, and to state them simply without wringing all possible emotion out of them. Look at these lines where Harold turns down the offer of a cold beer: "Alcohol has brought unhappiness in the past, he said, both to himself and those close to him. For many years he had chosen to avoid it." I can't help but think that any author other than British would have taken advantage of the opportunity and used far more dramatic language than "has brought unhappiness in the past". I like that there was no emotionally manipulative side story to wade through. Another aspect of the writing I liked was the author's vivid, but never wordy, descriptions, like this one: "The moon shone high, and cast a trembling copy of itself over the deep water." 

 I enjoyed reading this one and highly recommend it.


Sue Jackson said...

I've heard some good things about this novel, and your review makes me want to read it even more!


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Ordinary Reader said...

Thanks for commenting Sue. I hope you like this book. It's been over a month since I finished it and I still think about Harold and Maureen. I wish they were real people I could visit for tea :). I think they'll be on my mind for a long time.

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