The classic epic features a man leaving home to travel somewhere he’s never been, meet many new people, and overcome physical and mental hardship to reach his destination before returning home changed. BBC radio playwright Rachel Joyce follows that formula in her debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, but the title is spot on. Harold is no great hero, and that makes the story of his journey all the more inspiring.
Harold Fry is a recent retiree whose life is anchored by routine. He worked most of his life at the same job, took all his vacations at the same place, and has spent 20 years sleeping in a separate room from his wife. Then he receives a letter from Queenie, a former colleague who’s dying of cancer and wants to say goodbye. Rather than mailing a letter in response, he decides he must walk to see her in her hospice on the other end of England.
Along the way, Harold receives a good deal of kindness from strangers, but in exchange he ends up listening to their woes. Unlike François Lelord’s similar Hector And The Search For Happiness, Harold Fry acknowledges that having a conversation rarely solves problems. Joyce feels no need to try to neatly tie together the characters Hector meets on the road. They are chance encounters, and Harold is often more burdened than uplifted by what he hears.
Joyce has fun playing with readers’ expectations through a plot where reporters pick up on Harold’s journey. They say he talked a man off a bridge, that he’s left his wife for his true love, that he’s insane, or that he’s deeply spiritual. None of this is true. Instead, Joyce beautifully weaves a story that is far more based on internal discovery and pain than any external conflict. Sure, Harold has to contend with horrible blisters, bad weather, and annoying hangers-on, but the real depth comes from the slow unraveling of long-buried memories about his hard upbringing, his failed marriage, his troubled relationship with his son, and the bond with the woman he’s walking to see. At home, Harold’s wife Maureen engages in her own self-exploration, Joyce’s tender nod to the fact that people don’t need to do something as extreme as walk across a country to change their lives.
The boldest part of The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry is the ending, which brings the whimsical premise into the cold light of reality. Joyce artfully crafts a finale that’s simultaneously tragic and uplifting, a perfect ending to the fulfilling journey on which she leads her readers.