Thursday, June 14, 2012
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
By Rachel Joyce
Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith
This is a sit down and read in one gulp kind of novel, preferably by the fire with a nice glass of something in hand and your feet up. It’s sentimental without being soppy, enchanting and quietly heart-warming without being schmaltzy. This is a debut novel, but do not be fooled by this, because the author is no novice. She has written over twenty original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4, and she really knows how to write. Indeed, it is the really good writing that lifts this novel from light, to delightful.
Harold Fry is a terrific character and I grew to like, well, almost to love him. Although I have to confess it took me a wee while as I wanted to resist because it came as a shock to meet Harold in his 60’s with his quiet little behind the net-curtain sort of life. I was reluctant to believe in him, thinking he ought to be much older! But baby boomers, or the recently retired, be warned, Harold gets under your skin with his quiet little life and his heroic pilgrimage.
The novel is built upon the rather enviable conceit of the pilgrim and the people he meets along the way. Perfect you might say for a novelist to have a forward moving narrative and lots of interesting side characters. Indeed, Harold Fry sets off initially, unintentionally, but he keeps walking, in his boat shoes and accumulating blisters heading from almost one end of England to the other on foot. He’s on a quest of sorts to save his old workmate and friend, Queenie. The novel begins with a letter out of the blue from Queenie who is dying from cancer. Harold sets off to post her a reply and somehow keeps walking deciding instead to hand deliver the letter – several hundred kilometres walking virtually the entire length of England. Along the way Harold meets a host of new characters and the novel moves backwards and forwards between Harold on his pilgrimage and his bewildered wife Maureen, who has been left behind. But the bits I loved the most were Harold alone, encountering the beautiful English countryside, solitary in his reflections.
Joyce obviously has a deep affection for the English countryside which becomes a character in Harold’s pilgrimage and when I grew weary of the walk (and sometimes Harold), I revelled with him, in the beautiful scenery and sunsets. For example:
“The sun slipped over the edge of Dartmoor, and filled the sky with russet cloud. The hills were shaded an opaque blue and the cows grazing them glowed a soft apricot against the dying light.” And, “The morning sky was a single blue, combed through with cloud, while a slip of moon still loitered behind trees.”
Harold is joined along the way, for a chapter or two, by other wannabe pilgrims, a motley collection. Whereas Harold’s pilgrim was of a different sort – a solitary encounter with his life, his sorrows and the landscape. I preferred the individual encounters that Harold has along the way earlier in the novel, to the larger group of people who join him. But this too is successfully resolved, so it’s worth hanging in with Harold, to be there with him to the end.
The novel has a way of touching your heart where it hurts, when you’re not expecting it. It’s a simple tale really and it is in the telling that the talent lies. Joyce has the gift of understatement and I was moved to tears by the simplicity of the gift that Rex, neighbour to Maureen and Harold, decides to make for Maureen, to comfort her while Harold is on his walk. And too, the characters who Harold meets long the way, have unique colourful stories briefly encountered but rather beautifully observed. As the novel wraps up, there is a satisfying emotional substance to the whole story. You get to understand this strange and seemingly loveless marriage and how Harold ended up in his boat shoes walking. This is a joyful book about actually some very sad themes, but I think it will touch a few sensitive spots on the baby-boomer radar.
Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington writer and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.