“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce: Review

Harold Fry and his wife Maureen live a very ordinary life in Kingsbridge, Devon.  Recently retired, Harold likes to spend most of his time mowing the lawn or chatting with his widowed neighbour Rex. That is until one day he receives a letter that shall interfere with his daily routine and change his life and his marriage from then on.

The letter he receives is from Queenie Hennessy, a colleague who had worked with Harold in a brewery over 20 years ago. She writes to him to inform him that she has got terminal cancer and that she is currently living in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed.While the news do not seem to affect Maureen very much, they shake Harold to the bone. He hadn’t seen Queenie in a long time and they never really got to say goodbye to each other, when she disappeared from one day to another. Not knowing what else to do, he decides to write her a letter, expressing his well wishes.
He tells his wife that he’ll just quickly post the letter and be back. He doesn’t even take his mobile with him, because why would you if you only go to the mailbox. But when he’s at the mailbox, he can’t bring himself to post the letter and so he just walks on to the next one and the next and the next until he is almost out of his town. He decides to get something to eat at a garage and talks to the girl who works there. She tells him that her aunt had cancer as well, and that she thinks that believing one can save a person does actually save them. This is what makes Harold decide to walk to Berwick-upon-Tweed to see Queenie and that he will save her by walking. He calls the hospice and asks the nurse to tell Queenie to stay alive because he is walking to her and he also calls his wife and tries to explain that this is something he has to do.
From then on he is steadily walking northwards, only wearing his yachting shoes and his everyday clothes. He meets lots and lots of interesting people all over the country who tell him their stories and he tells them his. At some point he becomes so famous all over England that he finds himself with a large group of people who want to walk with him to save Queenie Hennessy. The whole “pilgrimage” of his turns into a media event and eventually the other pilgrims even let him behind because they don’t think he will make it in time to see Queenie.
While Harold is walking he reflects a lot on his life, his marriage and his son David, who is often mentioned by him and his wife, but we never encounter him personally. Gradually the stories and traumata of Harold’s past are revealed to the reader by dwelling on his memories with him. It soon becomes very clear that the quiet, boring life and marriage is not at all what it seems. I really liked that the story is told through Harold and Maureen’s point of view, because that allows the reader to learn much more about both of the characters and their lives, than if one only gets one side of the story. I am a great fan of the book, because it tells such a moving story in a way you don’t read it all the time, but truth be told, it gets a bit repetitive at times, especially towards the end. But I guess that also fits the narrative of the story, because walking through a whole country by foot will be a bit repetitive from time to time. Nevertheless I’d recommend it, because it is a very nice read.
I am not going to spoil what the reader discovers in the course of the story and if Harold will make it to Berwick-upon-Tweed, because I think that by reading the book you go on some kind of journey yourself and it is great to discover everything piece by piece.
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