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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
The book begins Harold Fry having breakfast on a Tuesday morning whilst his wife Maureen is busy vacuuming when a letter arrives for Harold. This very ordinary day was to change both their lives by the simple receipt of a letter from an old colleague of Harold's Queenie Hennesey. The letter states that Queenie is in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed where she is dying from terminal cancer. Harold writes a reply and sets out to post the letter, but instead keeps on walking....
Harold's home at Kingsbridge in the South Devon Hams is "as the Harold walks" 627 miles from Berwick on the east Scottish coast. Harold set out wearing just ordinary clothes and Yacht shoes. The book documents the journey the people he meets and their stories as his own life unfolds in his memories as he walks always heading north. To start with Harold stayed in budget hotels and B&B's and it was in these places that he met some of the people whose tales are told from the brief encounter.
Harold soon realises that his own lonely life is not unusual; so many people have a back story. A tale to tell of regret, so frequently born from misunderstandings. As Harold walks he remembers his son David, his memories sometimes surprising him. Of course he remembers the good times with Maureen and the circumstances that led to them sleeping in separate rooms. He also remembers his time at the brewery where he met Queenie and details of their working life are spilt out among the pages too. Through the pages of the book, we think we know Harold, an unassuming, shy, retiring man and we learn about Maureen as she is now and the Maureen of old. We learn about kind Queenie and the cruel Mr Napier the arrogant boss at the brewery.
Along the way Harold is followed by and eventually joined by a dog, by now Harold is sleeping in barns, sheds or out in the open and washing in public toilets. An encounter with a chap that takes his photo and contacts the press, leads to interest in Harold's quest and He also meets up and is joined by a troubled young man and eventually a whole troupe of people join and take over the Pilgrimage. It is easy to understand how people were touched by Harold's seemingly selfless act, but he gains so much from the walk that at times lays bare his emotions and character for all to see.
Not a pilgrimage in the religious sense but a journey to visit Queenie one last times means that it is a journey of importance and therefore a pilgrimage nonetheless.
We learn through Harold's encounters along the way of the frailties of the human condition and how acts of kindness can and do make a difference. The journey is physical, however it is the metaphorical that stays with the reader long after the last page is read and the book is closed for the last time. Through Harold's journey both he and his wife Maureen have their eyes opened to the wrongs they have done each other. In the final trimester of the novel we learn the shocking truth about their son and how this has impacted on their lives.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a gentle book, with a clear message. Contemporary and relevant the prose is easy to read and follow and the messages subtle, so that they do not distract from the tale.
Do not be put off by the unusual cover, the copy I have is a paperback with a crow sat on the "the" the title in bold red letters and a pair of yacht shoes at the bottom with a yellow and brown cover.
The Times says "Impossible to put down". I have read books that are harder to relinquish, but you do want to keep reading one more page or chapter to discover what happened next.
I hope I have wetted your appetite to read this book? Whilst I have described the gist of the book and given away some of the plot, I have been careful not to give too much away. It concerns me how some book reviews achieve crowns, yet they have carefully described the plot, the story, the characters, my reviews are intended to wet the review readers appetite to go on and buy or borrow a copy of the book to read. They are not designed to mean you don't need or have to read the book! I am sorry that some do not agree with this premise. But I always give a spoiler warning if I do include something that may give too much away. This is a touching book that many people will enjoy and learn something from.
Rachel Joyce is a British author who lives in Gloucester with her family, this is her first novel, but she has written many plays for Radio 4 and a BBC2 Period Drama. Her second novel "Perfect" is out in hardback and currently on offer at £8.0 from Amazon (Dec 2013).
Price and Availability:
Cover price £7.99 PB. At the time of writing just £5.75 from W H Smith and £3.49 on Kindle from Amazon and £21.18 HB also from Amazon.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
I know they say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but this did nothing for me at all with its dull caramel colour and a crow and a shoe in black above and below the title of the book. The title didn't really grab me either but these lengthy cumbersome titles seem to be the 'in thing' at the present time.
Harold and his wife seem to have drifted apart and one day Harold gets a letter from an old colleague and learns that she, Queenie is dying. He composes a letter to her but at the last minute at the post box he changes his mind and just keeps walking. He is not properly dressed for a long walk , he is wearing fairly cheap shoes and was only popping out to pst the letter yet this is the start of his pilgrimage.
He decides rather suddenly and with no prior planning that he is going to walk to see Queenie before she dies. This is the start of his 627 mile walk from his home in Kingsbridge, Cornwall to Queenie in the home in Berwick in Scotland. Th e journey takes him 87 days and the story is about this journey.
We know very little about Harold or his wife at the start of the journey but learn about him and his wife and their 'elephant in the room' as Harold walks the length of the country. At first I thought he was a silly old fool and his wife just someone who had grown apart from a rather grump old man. Apparently his son didn't communicate with him but did with the wife.
Harold becomes quite endearing as he is such a gentle soul and so pleasant to everyone he meets. He send postcards and gifts to his wife as he goes along and also to Queenie. The gifts are slightly odd souvenir type things but the thought is there.
Initially Harold is ill equipped but stays overnight in cheap B&Bs nursing his blistered sore feet. He really suffers initially as he isn't used to walking. He and the wife have some rather stilted telephone conversations and we get the feeling she does care for him and worries about him doing this walk. After some time he feels that he needs a but more of a challenge and he gets rid of his cards and money and phone and continues his pilgrimage free of any assistance, sleeping in barns and being given food.
His walk gets on the news and like Forrest Gump he ends up with a following. His wife comes to see him with a friend and they have a good talk. We find out a bit about some of the other characters and meanwhile find out more about Harold.
This is a gentle story as not a lot happens and it is all about the journey, the characters and how they change along the journey during the book. It isn't the happiest of tales but there were some parts that made me smile. I really grew quite fond of Harold as he really was a very nice, rather troubles and very sad man.
Harold was a simple man and yet his walk that began unthinkingly seemed to turn him into some kind of Jesus figure. Harold doesn't know what to make of this and is torn between walking off and abandoning them and hurting their feelings or having his simple walk which he felt was going to somehow save his friend's life taken over by these followers.
I found the book really well written as in reality there isn't much of a story. It was never going to end happily as we know that he had no hope of saving his dying friend's life by simply walking to see her. In fact he would have had a better chance of helping her had he travelled by train but then the story would not have been much of a story.
The story is more than Harold walking to see Queenie, it is about Harold, his wife and his family and what happened in their life in the past and this comes through so gradually as Harold continues on his walk.
Harold observes so much as he walks. He notices what is on the roadside verges, in fields and the towns and what the weather is doing too. We are taken on one person's rather wriggly walk northwards and so see things in the same way, slowly and in small bits, little by little. It is not a site seeing tour but more one person's observations and thoughts set alongside various places in the UK.
I found I warmed to Harold more and more as the book progressed but at times I was irritated with his attitude and behaviour. I thought his wife was not really that interesting but as Harold revealed more of their story I grw to like her too. They were a lovely old couple and so gentle, sweet and with a lot more to them than it seemed initially.
I loved the way the story unfolded and while not a lot happened there was enough to keep me interested and want to know what was going to happen. It was an older person's 'coming of age' trip where he discovers himself through his journey, no drugs, sex or rock and roll needed for this journey through which both harold and his wife Maureen rekindle their lost love.
I enjoyed this and found it a very gentle and easy to read novel and if this is typical of this author I would be happy to read another of her works.
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Queenie, an old colleague of Harold's is dying. When Harold gets the news, he finds he can't post the letter he's written to her, so he just keeps on walking. And so he starts his 627 mile walk that takes him 87 days away from his home and wife Maureen in Kingsbridge in Cornwall to Queenie in the hospice in Berwick in Scotland. This is "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce.
Using this very simple premise, Joyce builds the character of Harold Fry together with his journey to see his friend one last time. While walking the length of England, we learn the secrets of his life through his thoughts, as he recalls what brought him to this life-changing event. Back at home, his wife Maureen doesn't understand what's happening, but then, who would? For years she's been coping with a tired life with this man she once adored. He has changed in so many ways, but so did she. And her secrets are no less part of the problem than Harold's. How this trek changes them both is what we discover along the way.
Joyce uses elegantly simple, almost conversational language, to bring Harold's thoughts to us. In this she shows us how unwittingly charming he is through his shy innocence and the reactions of those he meets along the way. Of course, had he been young and fit and well prepared for such a long hike, this wouldn't have been half as interesting. His physical suffering becomes something that flies alongside his taking stock of his life, and which he won't allow himself to do away with, even if it hinders him in his quest.
In fact, Harold becomes almost self-effacing in his determination to finish what he set out to do without allowing himself anything to make it easier. In this he becomes a quasi-martyr to his cause. This isn't the most sympathetic characteristic to have. But martyrs are strong and unbending to their suffering; Harold, on the other hand, is weak. We see this especially when he has difficulty in getting rid of the unwanted group of followers that begin tagging along with him. This is what makes him so loveable and why readers want him to succeed. Despite this, we know he will ultimately fail since he dreams that his reaching Queenie on foot will heal her.
It is hard to talk about this book without becoming effusive. Everything in it beguiles the reader, even when things happen that disturb us. If there is anything that I found to be less than perfect it would be the slightly Jesus-like quality that his 'groupies' project on Harold. Thankfully, Joyce avoids this becoming too much of a Christian metaphor by showing just how false these apostles actually are, because of their own selfishness. Even so, I found these passages to be slightly annoying and a bit too long winded. I would have preferred that their inclusion was less prominent.
Even so, I still enjoyed almost all of "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry." If I had to sum it up in one phrase, I'd say it is the retired person's version of a coming-of-age or mid-life crisis experience. Joyce gives us a fascinating story with magnetic characters that encompass human and physical strengths and frailties. For this, I give it a solid four out of five stars and strongly recommend it.
I have wanted to read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry for a while because I had heard a lot about it but I wanted to wait until it was out on paperback. It is available on Amazon at the time of writing for £3.85 in paperback or £2.69 on Kindle.
The premise is pretty simple and laid out almost instantly in the book. Retired alcohol salesman Harold Fry receives a letter at his home in Kingsbridge, Devon from former work colleague Queenie Hennessy who he has had no contact with for 20 years. In the letter she tells him that she is in a hospice dying of cancer. Harold, shocked by this sudden news writes a letter back to her and leaves the house to go to the end of the road to post this letter, but then decides to walk a bit further. A conversation with a young petrol station cashier triggers something in him and he makes the sudden decision that he will walk all the way from Devon to where Queenie is ailing in Scotland and sets off on his journey completely unprepared.
On his way he encounters a number of different individuals, all of whom open up to him revealing all sorts of hopes, fears, regrets and problems as a sort of catharsis when they hear about his pilgrimage. Harold himself keeps quite private and we learn through his internal thoughts about his own fractured relationship with his wife and son and the potential reasons that have led him to take on tis seemingly impossible task. Meanwhile, back home in Devon his wife Maureen struggles to come to terms with his decision to take on this task but similarly goes over their shared history in her head , helping to piece together the mysteries, tragedies and sadness that have plagued most of their marriage.
I have to say that I really enjoyed this book and unusually for me in recent times, I managed to finish it in just a few days. Joyce really knows how to spin a good yarn and where it is particularly strong is in the details of Harold and Maureen's life that she initially holds back and then gradually lets seep through as the story goes on. In that sense it is very well plotted, and although I guessed one of the twists this did not mean that it lacked emotional punch when the truth was actually revealed. There is strangely a sense of believability with it, the protagonists of Harold and Maureen are quite well and realistically drawn, especially as we learn more about their stories and they both seem to be stumbling towards some kind of redemption as they realise that they have lost their way and are both travelling in completely different directions metaphorically.
The writing is clear and quite sparse, it is certainly not a book which is 'overwritten' by any means. The people that Harold encounters on his way are mainly described in only the most basic of terms and are rather defined by what they say rather than what they look like or by what Harold's opinion of them may be. It makes him more likeable as a character that he is polite to all of these people who are 'intruding' on his mission and trying to proffer their own meaning onto what he is doing, whether that they are trying to define him as undergoing a spiritual or religious journey or vulnerable and undergoing some kind of mental health crisis. Ultimately, Harold does not allow himself that level of analysis and keeps telling himself that he must stay focussed on the journey ahead. it is by doing this that he quite believably learns to come to terms with various painful periods that have shaped his life and the person that he has become.
There are perhaps a few minor quibbles. It is slightly unevenly paced at times, for example it spends a lot of time going over the early stages in Harold's journey and then seems to rush the story through a bit as he moves further up the country. I also lost a bit of patience when it got about 3 quarters of the way through it when a rag-tag bunch of troubled folks and attention seekers decided they are going to join Harold for some mainly selfish reasons.
I would also like to say something about the ending without giving any spoilers of course. It is a refreshing change to read something which could lapse into sentimentality very easily but this really does not. It does not cop out at all at the end and I think that is something to be applauded and I think some people will be quite distressed by elements of it.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a really good, well written story that will suck you in, you really cannot do any better than to go for this book. In many elements it really comes under the mantle of 'a great summer/holiday read'. Expect to be gripped, intrigued and eventually moved by this wonderful life affirming story which is one of the most enjoyable things that I have read for a while.
When Harold Fry receives a letter from a long lost friend, he has no idea just how much it is about to change his life. As he leaves home to post his reply in the postbox at the end of the road, he walks on, with no idea that he's about to walk from one end of the country to the other.
With only the clothes on his back and his yachting shoes, no hiking boots, map or mobile phone, Harold keeps on walking. Sure in the knowledge that if he keeps on walking he might just save someone's life.
I've heard many a good thing about this book, but did The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry live up to all the hype surrounding it? It certainly did! I thoroughly enjoyed reading Harold's adventure as he walks his way from Kingsbridge, Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland.
This book is about everyday people. I'm sure many readers out there can connect and sympathise with the characters, not just with Harold and his wife, but with the people Harold meets on his journey, too. As his journey progresses Harold recounts his past and confronts his personal demons, regrets and missed opportunities, trying to make sense of his life.
Don't get me wrong, while a portion of this story may be sad, on the whole The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a story of hope, of courage and of redemption. We learn more about the man as he walks on. The story is moving, yet humour is weaved in here and there.
It is a simple story with the odd twist and turn thrown in, but it is one that works very well. Rachel Joyce gives such life to the story that it's so easy to imagine being there with Harold as he walks on. I enjoyed the story so much that I found myself racing through the book and I read two-thirds of it in one go!
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is charming, heartbreaking, funny and inspiring. Once you start reading, you can't help but follow Harold on his pilgrimage. Having finished reading the book now, I think I'll miss Mr Fry, but I also think this is one of those books that will stay with me.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was an unlikely choice for me; the rather twee cover with illustrations of birds and worn out shoes; the cute line drawings at the beginning of each chapter; and the heartfelt comments from the Express and the Mail which really over-used the word 'charming'.... However this was the choice of one of my reading group, so I picked it up and gave it a go - a decision which I was very glad I made since, much against my expectations, I was indeed charmed, touched and enthralled by the gentle story of Harold Fry.
This novel plunges straight into action from the very first chapter. Harold Fry, an unassuming retired gentleman living in Kingsbridge, receives an unexpected letter from Queenie, an old work colleague. Her news is not good; she is terminally ill with cancer and she is saying her goodbyes. Struggling with unexpected emotion, Harold tries to pen a reply to her letter and goes out to the post box to send it off to her hospice in Scotland. It is then that his story really begins. Finding it impossible to post such a difficult and (to his eyes) inadequate missive, Harold decides to walk on to the next post box...and the next ... and the next - until he realised that almost without thinking, he has made the decision to walk from Devon to Scotland to deliver the letter himself.
This unexpectedly impulsive gesture from a traditional and un-impulsive man forms the heart of the book. Harold becomes convinced that the very act of walking to Scotland will help Queenie in some way - if not actually curing her of her cancer then prolonging her life in some way. Harold goes out with nothing - no waterproof, no mobile, no walking boots. In this way he is a true pilgrim, and the characters he meets during his long walk give his pilgrimage form and shape; some of them are broken; some of them are strong - but they all have their own stories to tell and Harold's gentle nature not only draws this out of them but also gives them comfort and hope. What gives this novel shape and depth for me is Harold's own story; his pilgrimage will change him in ways that nobody could guess and as he walks his own history gradually unravels like a twisted ball of string, bringing both trauma and perhaps eventually the peace that he craves.
I found myself enthralled by this novel, reading it compulsively and finishing it in a day. The language is simple but amazingly evocative and contains some beautiful descriptions of countryside and weather. Sometimes the repetitive nature of the narrative was slightly annoying; Harold walks, he meets a stranger, he moves on; he walks some more, meets another stranger, etc - but this was only a minor irritation.
The little hints and snatched scenes from Harold's past life that are dropped into his story as he walks and remembers give the reader small pieces of jigsaw that they start to build with. Gradually the real story of Harold emerges and it is this that makes compulsive reading - we come to understand that Harold and his wife Maureen are deeply unhappy and that they must resolve whatever has turned them from a happy, laughing young couple into sad older people who hardly speak to each other any more.
This book is saved from the twee, sugary tale that I assumed it would be by the realism of the story. I liked the revelations that Harold smelled - of course he did, he set off with no spare clothes or toothbrush; although descriptions of Harold's worn out loafers and the horrible blisters on his feet were a little nauseating at times, I was glad that he wasn't unrealistically skipping along like a 20 year old. A quote from The Pilgrim's Progress is at the very start of the book, leaving no doubt in the readers mind that this is a Bunyanesque allegory, and the suffering that Harold endures through his 600 mile walk gives authenticity to the word pilgrimage. Does his suffering make a difference to Queenie? All is revealed at the very end of the book but in many ways this does not matter - it is Harold's journey that is the focus of the narrative and the difference he makes to himself that is important.
Would I recommend this book? I find it difficult to decide. I obviously enjoyed it a lot as a quick and entertaining read, but it did have moments of irritation and slight boredom wrapped around the story. In conclusion, I liked the book but didn't love it, and to my own surprise have reached the conclusion that I would not read it again.
Rachel Joyce is a British author who has successfully written plays for Radio 4. This is Rachel Joyce's first novel and it was longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize and shortlisted for the 2012 Desmond Elliott Prize.
My paperback copy was published by Black Swan in 2012 and has 364 pages.