So the big question – does it live up to the hype? Yes I really think it does – I loved it anyway. It’s a poignant original story about the complexities of human beings, weaving together themes of faith, hope, love, bereavement and the importance of talking to people.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a deceptively simple tale – although well written with acutely wry observations and marvellous honesty. Rachel Joyce sees people as they often really are, many nursing great sorrows each hiding their own demons.
“The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings.”
So starts the extraordinary story of Harold Fry, who at 65, quite newly retired and living in South Devon receives a letter unexpectedly from a woman he once worked with, now in a nursing home in Berwick upon Tweed she tells him she is dying. This simple, short letter triggers something in Harold, he remembers a woman who was once very kind to him. Harold scribbles a reply and immediately sets out to post it. However as Harold reaches the post box he feels unable to let the letter go and keeps walking to the next box, and the one after that. Following a conversation with a girl in a garage shop Harold becomes convinced that if he keeps walking then Queenie Hennessy will keep on living. He sends her a message – to wait for him. So Harold begins to walk, in shirt and tie and yachting shoes with no compass, map or mobile phone. He’s a man unused to walking, and the going is slow, but he firmly believes that if he can just keep putting one foot in front of the other he must eventually get there.
As Harold walks he meets many fascinating characters, and takes time to face the reasons he finds himself wanting to save Queenie. He reflects on his once great love for his wife Maureen – with whom he desperately needs to reconnect. The relationship he had with his son David and what he sees as his betrayal of his friend, Queenie Hennessy.
Inevitably the press gets wind of Harold’s pilgrimage to Berwick upon Tweed, and at home his wife gets calls from PR agents while out on the road Harold is joined by a motley crew of followers and a dog that likes to play fetch with pebbles. It’s a long way, and it takes a long time – and there are days when doubts set in and Harold’s faith begins to wobble.
This is the kind of book people call life affirming – which it might well be. For me though it is a deeply touching story about people and how it is possible to re-find one another. It is also a real celebration of England, its people and its places. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an impressive debut, which is already being enjoyed by many many readers.