The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was Rachel Joyce’s debut novel, and was longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. It’s the story of a pensioner, Harold Fry, who lives in Devon and receives a letter from an old work friend of his. Queenie Hennessey has written to say she is in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and dying of cancer. Harold writes Queenie a short reply and walks to the post office to send the letter, but instead of posting it he just keeps walking. He intends to send it from the next post office instead, but again he keeps walking. He phones the hospice and leaves a message for Queenie, saying that he is walking to meet her and she must wait for him. So begins Harold’s pilgrimage across the country.
I read this book for my book club and may not have picked it up otherwise, although I had looked at in the shops a few times because I was drawn to the cover and intrigued by the title. Initially, I found the story and the characters to be quite irritating. It reminded me a bit of Life of Pi, except instead of being ‘day 35, still at sea’ it was ‘day 35, still walking.’ It felt like the storyline was being dragged out without making any kind of progress. Harold was walking and walking and walking, and I really felt as a reader that I was just plodding my way through the book while he plodded his way through Devon. Both Harold and the story itself seemed painfully slow.
Harold also annoyed me, as did Maureen. It drove me mad how no one would talk to each other, but moan internally instead. It wasn’t until I realised exactly why Harold couldn’t talk to David that I had a real change of heart about the story. Harold suddenly became a much more sympathetic character, and his life was so desperately sad, so I could forgive him for his dithering and floundering ways. I thought the way David died and how Harold and Maureen had struggled to cope with it for so long was really very moving. I might just have been horrendously slow on the uptake though, because everyone else in my book club had realised very early on that David was obviously dead, whereas it came as a real shock to me much later down the line. Perhaps I overlooked some vital clues somewhere, but I think having that shock really made the difference in the whole reading experience for me, and I might not have felt the same way about Harold or the book in general if I’d realised this sort-of-twist much earlier in the story.
There were still some aspects of the story that sat a little oddly with me though. I couldn’t really understand why Harold insisted on walking to see Queenie. Admittedly there wouldn’t have been much of a story if he’d just got in a car and drove, but it made me kind of anxious because he spent so long faffing about and getting lost when there was a very real danger that she would die before he saw her. And surely seeing Queenie is the whole aim in the first place? I also found Harold’s eventual meeting with Queenie to be a real anti-climax. It didn’t feel like a resolution because Queenie was too ill to even really register that Harold was there. I suppose the resolution was really supposed to be the bond that Harold rediscovers with Maureen and the way they finally acknowledge David’s death, but I felt like Queenie was the lynchpin to the story and yet she was pushed to the sidelines.
I also read the first few opening pages of Rachel Joyce’s companion novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, which I have since bought. The extract was included at the end of my edition of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This is the story told from Queenie’s point of view as she is in the hospice waiting for Harold to arrive. It sounds quite intriguing though because from the snippet that I read it seems like Queenie was in love with Harold, which also puts a new spin on Harold’s story in a way and did slightly change the way I reflected on both characters after reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Based on the extract I read, I think this novel’s also going to be filled with a lot of regret, and is unlikely to be the cheeriest of works (especially as we already know Queenie’s fate). I’m looking forward to reading the story from a different perspective, but I think it’s going to be rather draining on the old emotions. It’s an interesting idea though, and I will hopefully get around to reading Queenie’s companion piece soon.
Read previous Book Review featuring J.D. Salinger’s For Esme – With Love and Squalor