In my quest to read the Man Booker Prize longlist, I began with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, as recommended by the nice lady in Waterstones in Chesham – and I’m glad I did, because I loved it. Harold Fry is a retired man, gently composting in a dull, routine life with his wife, Maureen, in Devon. As Maureen says, he hadn’t really moved from his chair in the six months since he retired; Maureen is obsessed with cleaning, and neither seem like especially appealing characters. Then, one day, Harold receives a letter from Queenie, a lady he once worked with. It is clear that he had considered her a good friend, though they hadn’t been in touch for years, and he is shocked by the letter, which tells him that she is dying in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Despite his emotion, he writes a stilted letter, and sets out to post it, wandering down the road to the postbox. But he keeps walking, and continues for a while, thinking about Queenie and about his life. Eventually, he comes to a garage, where a girl tells him that, when it comes to illness,
‘You have to believe. That’s what I think. It’s not about medicine and all that stuff. You have to believe a person can get better. There is so much in the human mind we don’t understand. But, you see, if you have faith, you can do anything.’
And it comes to Harold that if he, too, believes, he can save Queenie – so he decides to walk to her. Completely unequipped, with only his wallet, he sets out, and he walks. And his walk provides the narrative of the book. If you don’t think that sounds very interesting, think again: as he walks, he reflects on his life, his relationships, and the world in general. He meets people, and talks and listens, and makes connections he would never otherwise have made. He sees the country, and connects with the land in a way he had never done before. Joyce’s descriptions of the countryside are breathtaking in their panoramas and their originality. The walking itself helps him to connect not only with the world around him but also with his own feelings, something he has never done before. He says, ‘Maybe you saw even more than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet’. He begins to understand freedom, loneliness, happiness and sadness, and he also begins to analyse his relationships, with his wife, his son, his parents.
There are several narrative threads running through the book: Harold’s walk, interrupted by cameos as he meets people along the way; Harold’s pasts – with his parents; at work; with Maureen and their son; and also Maureen’s experience, for although she mostly remains at home, she too goes on a journey of understanding and recovery. I won’t spoil the ending, but there are many twists and turns along the way; characters and events are not always all they seem, and Joyce doesn’t shy away from the bad things that have happened, and do happen: this is not a mawkish novel, and its narrative style is almost naive, restrained, not overly emotional. Having said that, it made me cry, and it’s the kind of book that makes you want to tell people you love them before it’s too late. It could so easily have been a sentimental novel, but Joyce has a marvellous way of subverting expectations and deflating pomposity that avoids this pitfall. It is also a remarkably English novel – not just geographically, although the geography, and beauty, of the country is a big part of it, but also in its characters and its restraint. My only (very slight) criticism is that I somehow feel it reads too easily – it quickly sucked me in and made me feel things, but afterwards I realised I had quite suspended any critical faculty – but perhaps this is a compliment rather than a criticism! Anyway, I couldn’t put it down and am definitely rooting for this to make it to the shortlist.
PS Harold is on Twitter – @harold_fry; and on facebook, where there is a map of his pilgrimage: https://www.facebook.com/unlikelypilgrimageofharoldfry