Sunday August 19, 2012
Review by MARTIN SPICE
An eye for detail and a sensitivity to the vagaries of the human heart have produced a moving tale.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Doubleday, 272 pages
THERE’S no discouragement / Shall make him once relent / His first avowed intent / To be a pilgrim.”
These well-known words from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress offer a fitting introduction to Harold Fry’s unlikely pilgrimage. When the book opens, Harold is sitting at the breakfast table with a slice of toast he isn’t eating, looking out into his garden, thinking he might like to go out but “the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday”.
Harold is bored and his domestic circumstances are far from ideal. His home is a cold one. His wife Maureen is using the vacuum cleaner, a slight woman with a cap of silver hair and a brisk walk who likes her toast cold and crisp. An envelope arrives with a postmark neither of them recognise.
“He didn’t know anyone in Berwick. He didn’t know many people anywhere.”
I linger over the book’s prologue and opening lines because they are key to grasping the tone and concerns of The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry. The ordinariness of Harold, his wife and their domestic life is a key ingredient in what follows.
Rachel Joyce has a very, very good ear and eye for the little details that make up the lives and relationships of her characters. She is a writer of hints, nuance and shades of meaning. Behind the text lies a sub-text of intention. For Harold and Maureen, all is not as it seems and if that is a fairly conventional novelistic theme, its treatment here is not. Rooted in domestic trivia, Harold is set to undertake a journey that will change all of their lives.
The envelope he receives contains a note from an old work colleague, Queenie, thanking him for his friendship and advising him that she is dying of cancer. Inexplicably, “tears crammed his eyes”.
He leaves the table, goes upstairs and writes a reply, which he then goes out to post. Except that when he gets to the post box he keeps walking and keeps walking and as he walks from one post box to the next, he begins to look back on his work and his marriage, in which all decisions have been made for him, until he asks himself, “Who am I?”
If this is beginning to sound unbearably corny, all I can say is that it isn’t. Because Harold is so self-effacing and so unlikely a hero, it is actually quite touching. It doesn’t need spelling out that, just as in Bunyan’s original Pilgrim’s Progress, Harold is an everyman. Just past retirement age, he pauses to examine his life, the decisions he’s made, the state of the few relationships left in his life and what his remaining years hold in store. He is unhappy with much of what he discovers.
And so, his drift from post box to box slowly evolves into a pilgrimage, not in search of personal grace, but as a means of saving Queenie. If he can walk to Berwick, he reasons, he can save her from a cancerous death.
And so his pilgrimage proper begins, encouraged by a conversation with an attendant in a garage who tells him, “You have to believe, that’s what I think.... If you have faith you can do anything.” Her words have the force of an epiphany: “Harold gazed at the girl in awe. He didn’t know how it had happened, but she seemed to be standing in a pool of light.”
Harold’s pilgrimage to save Queenie takes him the length of England, from the deep south to the Scottish border. Along the way, he becomes something of a celebrity and attracts a growing band of followers who have their own agendas, all of which add some drama to an otherwise potentially repetitive structure.
In his absence, Maureen is also forced to evaluate her part in the downfall of their marriage. Some of the book’s most touching moments concern their individual recollections of their meeting at a dance hall, where Maureen was young and carefree and Harold completely swept away by her beauty.
This is a relationship that has soured over time, in large part since the arrival of their difficult and awkward son David. Is it redeemable? In lesser hands, The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry could prove a mawkish tale or read like an ageing hippy self-help manual.
That it does neither is testimony to Rachel Joyce’s skill in establishing tone and authenticity from the very start. The pilgrimage, like the picaresque, is a simple and effective symbol of an inner journey. I found it tender and at times very moving. Joyce’s eye for detail and her sensitivity to the vagaries of the human heart are unwavering. Unless I am much mistaken, The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry will become (if it hasn’t already), deservedly, a very successful book indeed.