Today’s blog comes to us courtesy of Indigo Bookseller Kristi Reilly, who is calling this novel her favourite book so far this year. A good deal of us concur with her, and highly recommend this charming and emotional novel.
“Will you be long?”
“I’m only going to the end of the road.”
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry centers on the life of Harold Fry, a 65-year-old recently retired man living in Kingsbridge, England with his wife of many years, Maureen. As the boredom of being unemployed is just settling in, Harold receives a letter from Queenie, a former co-worker he hasn’t seen in decades, writing to say goodbye as she is dying from cancer. Harold decides to mail a letter in response, but instead of putting the letter in the post he starts to walk, deciding to bring the letter to Queenie’s bedside at Berwick-upon-Tweed on foot, in an attempt to ‘save’ her. The book follows Harold’s implausible trek across England, and the many emotional and physical hurdles he must overcome to complete his mission.
Reading this book felt literally like taking a journey. You are right there with Harold though every emotionally and physically painful step, reliving his memories and helping him make new ones. When his feet ache from the physical strain of walking such a distance, you are rallying for him to rest and buy some new shoes. When the many hangers-on begin to join him on his journey, you can feel them weighing him down in both mind and body. I thought a lot about Canadian icon Terry Fox while reading this novel (there actually seems to be a lot drawn from Terry Fox – a walk for cancer which begins with little fanfare but becomes a corporate and media circus even though the trekker does not wish it to be so). I also thought a lot about The Road by Cormac McCarthy, with similar themes of loneliness, father-son relationships, and a seemingly never-ending journey. I had the same visceral experience while reading both books, where the experience was totally enveloping, and I was unaware of my actual physical surroundings. It felt like I was actually travelling through the apocalyptic wasteland with the father and son in The Road, and along the dirt roads through the English countryside with Harold.
The novel centers on the relationships between Harold and everyone in his life – his wife Maureen, son David, the people from his past and those he meets along his journey. Harold’s relationship with his wife Maureen will ring true to many couples who have been married for decades – the spark in their relationship died years ago, and they are both struggling to remember a time when they actually enjoyed one another’s presence. Maureen is the overbearing, naggy, un-physical wife and Harold is the docile, reliant, ‘yes dear’ husband. Both Maureen and Harold believe he was an insufficient father to their son David, and Harold’s constant flashbacks to the moment he failed when David needed him the most have haunted both of them for years. When Harold decides to walk to save Queenie, it is the first time that Maureen can ever remember her husband actually doing something in his life, something with meaning, taking a chance. Harold’s journey is described as him “not so much walking to Queenie as away from himself”. This journey feels like Harold is constantly trying to change the inevitable – he is trying to ‘save’ Queenie from a terminal cancer, believing that if she can just stay alive until he got to her side she will be ok. He is trying to change the past, to right all of the wrongs he has done to his family and friends throughout his life. He is trying to prove he can be a good father, a good husband, a good friend. He doesn’t want his life to end feeling like the coward he and his family believes he is. This central theme of life being a journey, everyone having regrets, but that sometimes you need to take a chance is one that holds meaning for people of all ages. Harold spent his whole life avoiding confrontation and attention, but through the notice his walk receives his life becomes the complete opposite. He is forced to rely on the generous nature of strangers – people he would have previously tried his best to avoid eye contact with. The dichotomy between Harold beginning to mend his relationship with his wife through their physical distance and forging a connection with other folks by letting go of his anxieties and ‘English pride’ is obvious, and exceptionally heartrending to read.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is my favourite book I have read so far this year. Rarely has a book touched me so deeply. Whether or not Harold reaches Queenie is not the point of this book. The idea that you can just get up and go, leave a life that you are unhappy with, and take a journey to become the person you never knew you longed to be is one that everyone will enjoy and take meaning from.