After its release two years ago, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry became a bestseller almost immediately, and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read since it came out, not only because of its brilliant title, but because it was thoroughly recommended to me by so many people. So I finally got around to reading it (or perhaps I should say listening, as I’ve got the audiobook), and I was not disappointed.
The premise of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is both simple and effective. Reeling from the news that an old friend of his is dying of cancer, Harold Fry, a pensioner from Devon, sets out to post a letter to her. And then he just keeps on walking. In fact, he decides to walk all the way from where he is now to Queenie Hennessy’s hospice. He sets out to walk from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the hope that somehow the very act of walking with save her life.
What I like about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is that it doesn’t ever really feel unlikely. Logically, what Harold does, though possible, would be an incredibly strange feat to attempt to real life. Yet Joyce’s novel is certainly one to make you have faith in the possibility of the extraordinary, and the way Harold’s walk is described means that it never feels unnatural. No more than once or twice in the novel did I sit back from reading and think, well, no one would ever do this. Joyce manages to brilliantly suspend your disbelief. Every movement, every person who Harold meets on his walk, even the escalation of his ‘pilgrimage’ towards the end of his novel – in this author’s skilled hand, all of this is made believable.
Joyce’s characterisation is superb. Harold is brilliantly created and sustained, although it’s Maureen who I was most impressed by. Her development over the novel, and Joyce’s slow revealing of her character is done very well. At first we are tempted to view her as boring, but she’s left to capture our sympathies in the cleverest of ways. I love how small details, such as her constant cleaning, become a tool to reveal her character and state of mind. I also thought Rex was a lovely and poignant creation. Moreover, every individual that Harold meets along his journey, from Will to the leader of the cycling mothers, from Martina to the nuns at Queenie’s hospice – every single one is endowed with their own character, and every single one feels three dimensional, complex, real. Joyce subtly undercuts your expectations and assumptions, presenting you with people that really do feel like people. It is as though behind every character – however major or minor – that appears in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, there is another whole novel worth of backstory to be told.
What most impresses me is the manner in which Joyce slowly reveals the past, gently engaging your suspense and hinting at the web of relations between the characters. We get to slowly work out what has happened in Harold’s life up to this point, to guess at his feelings for Queenie, for Maureen, and hers for his. I like the way that Harold’s walk across England simultaneously lets him walk into the story of his childhood, of his marriage with Maureen and his relationship with his son David. I am always fond of novels that deal at once with the past and the present, and here we’ve given another such dual story. This book is as much about Harold’s life up until this point as it is about his walk, his ‘unlikely pilgrimage’, itself.
I have very little to criticise. I’ll admit that it took me a little while to get into the novel, although this may be partly because I listened to it on audiobook rather than reading it in book form, and I sometimes find audiobooks easier to forget about than physical books. Still, I found the novel didn’t completely grip me until about chapter twelve. From then on, however, I was hooked. Apart from one minor moment near the end that I was unconvinced about, I found The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry a thoroughly poignant and engaging read.
It’s an utterly lovely novel. I don’t mean this in a patronising or condensing way. It’s also a brilliantly and thoughtfully written novel. But its sheer loveliness was what I found most compelling; this is a book that is a complete joy to read. Certainly it deals with difficult and tragic elements of life, but it is also a novel that consistently keeps a brilliant sense of optimism, a love of life and humanity that rings through the story and its characters. It is a celebration of ordinary people and the extraordinary things they can do.
Greatest strength: I think probably the depth of emotion conveyed in this novel. It’s a beautiful story, and is lovingly told in a very moving way. The sheer humanity Joyce manages to convey is just lovely.
Greatest weakness: I did find it a little slow going at first. It took me several chapters to get really into it, and it was only about half way through that I began to be really gripped by the book.
Let’s finish on a quote: People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.
Next week: What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt