Monday, 6 January 2014

Book review: "The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry", by Rachel Joyce

I picked up this book in Waterstones based just on the title, blurb, and a picture of a pair of yachting shoes on the cover. I like books about walking, and it seemed to be about an elderly man's journey across England.

It turned out to be a good choice.

Firstly the book is well written, with a deft use of language and a perfectly judged pace. Secondly, what appears to be the main topic - a journey - is really a hook on which hangs a brilliant character study.

Harold Fry is an utterly ordinary man, recently retired after a lifetime in one job in South Devon. His marriage to Maureen is unhappy as they have slowly drifted apart over the 47 years of marriage. One day he receives a letter from an old colleague, Queenie, stating that she is dying of cancer, and saying goodbye. He had not spoken to her - or even given her much thought - for over twenty years.

Yet a chance meeting on the way to post a letter to Queenie sets him off on a totally different course. Without going home or telling Maureen, he sets off to visit Queenie in Berwick-on-Tweed, with a certainty - almost a faith - that she will live long enough to see him. If he walks, she will live.

As he heads north through Britain he slowly drops the trappings of his previous life, deconstructing himself as he comes to terms with key events in his past. One, the day his son nearly drowned in the sea, proves a pivotal moment in the lives of his family and in his relationship with his wife and child.

Harold's simple journey and story affects many of the people he meets - at first he is naive, and whilst some people spur him on, others laugh at his mission. But as his journey progresses and he meets more people, so his simple faith touches more lives.

But Maureen also goes on a journey without leaving her home. As the days pass her annoyance with Harold is replaced by other emotions and she is forced to examine their relationship anew.

No-one understands why he is undertaking the pilgrimage, and most assume that Harold once had - or even still has - had a sexual relationship with Queenie. Yet the truth when it emerges strikes much more to the core of Harold's being.

This is not a religious tome; whilst Harold is perfect happy with other people's faith, he himself is not religious. Instead, his faith grows during the course of the book; it is not a faith in God, but a faith that an ordinary man can do the extraordinary.

Some pages make you laugh; others are filled with pathos and grief. But these are both deftly handled and force the reader on. The basic question first posed in the book: will Harold reach Queenie before she dies? is replaced with others, all of which are compelling and beautifully resolved by the last page.

I would award this book five out of five stars. It is a truly excellent book that thoroughly deserved to get on the Man Booker longlist last year. Indeed I would go further: this book started off as a play on Radio 4; it should become a film.

3 comments:

Alan Rayner said...

I bought this book when it came out simply because it sounded good. I was bored with it after about 10 pages but stuck with it. Half way through and I was completely bored with it. So slow. I did laugh at a couple of incidents.
Three quarters through and my opinion hasn't changed. I think it dragged on and on and on. I put it down and started another book. Now I can't go back to it even though I don't know the ending. Maybe I should read the last few pages.
Still, we can't all like the same things.

David Cotton said...

Hi Alan,

Sorry to hear you didn't like it. Books are very individual things, and I guess it's a case of each to our own.

It's very unusual for me to award a book five stars, but I did in this case. I started reading it and it just dragged me in. I completed it in little over a day.

I can see why it wouldn't be to everyone's tastes, and in places it is slightly unbelievable (although perhaps not given Christian Around Britain's publicity), but I loved it.

Martin said...

Thanks for the recommendation, I've just ordered a copy from my local library.