There is something appealing about the idea of making a pilgrimage and reading about it is almost as satisfying on another level, even when the pilgrim in question doesn’t know that is what he is doing.
Harold Fry was not prepared for a pilgrimage at all, he was on his way to post a letter, a note written in haste that the closer he came to the post-box, the less satisfied he was with what he had composed, as if the letter had somehow come to represent all that he had achieved with his life – showing him up as incapable of stringing together the appropriate words that might express the sentiment he wished to convey – while harbouring his mild but growing discontent, he continues on to the next post-box and then the next and then one thing lead to another…
Harold’s letter is a reply to Queenie Hennessy, an ex-colleague whom he hasn’t seen since the day she disappeared from work, a disappearance that is in some way connected to Harold. Queenie’s short letter informs Harold of her illness, he learns she is lying in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the very northern tip of England, about as far from Kingsbridge, South Devon as one could possibly be.
The walk to the post-box and an encounter with a young shop assistant in a garage prove to be the tipping point for Harold, he sets off to Berwick, convinced that by making his pilgrimage, he might save Queenie from certain death.
Harold is propelled by instinct, an urgency to make some kind of difference and as his feet carry him North, little by little he comes to understand the significance of his undertaking, as the layers of his self-protective habits built up over the years, peel away at a similar rate to the soles of his shabby yachting shoes, until eventually even words are no longer required to explain; his purpose and inspiration shine out of him, attracting followers and making him almost unrecognisable to the woman he has lived with for the past forty years, his wife Maureen.
Harold believed his journey was truly beginning. He had thought it started the moment he decided to walk to Berwick, but he now saw that he had been naïve. Beginnings could happen more than once, or in different ways. You could think you were starting something afresh, when actually what you were doing was carrying on as before. He had faced his shortcomings and overcome them, and so the real business of was walking was happening only now.
Rachel Joyce’s debut novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, however it would be wrong to think of her as a novice writer and as the back pages inform us, she has written over twenty original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4 as well as adaptations television drama. It is clear right from the first pages that this is a confident and accomplished writer and I couldn’t help but imagine these characters already on-screen, it is as if we have seen Harold before, so much of that reserved part of his character seems so familiar, even if he does appear to fill a stereotype, however he does not remain typecast for long, yet neither does he change completely.
It may be stating the obvious, but this is a very English novel – well how could it not be when the protagonist is an Englishman traversing his country from one end to the other; it is not just the landscape, it is the slow unmasking of Harold, a man who barely made a ripple in his working life having done his best to keep unpleasant matters from being aired or making a fuss.
He had always been too English; by which he supposed he meant that he was ordinary. He lacked colour. Other people knew interesting stories, or had things to ask. He didn’t like to ask, because he didn’t like to offend. He wore a tie every day but sometimes he wondered if he was hanging on to an order or set of rules that had never really existed.
Overall, a most enjoyable read and I am sure we will be seeing more from Rachel Joyce, she is at work on her second novel, another “celebrating the ordinary, linking laughter and pain” story, she has said.
Interview – Rachel Joyce discusses how her background writing radio plays informed the novel and how her father (to whom she dedicates the book)and others shaped the character of Harold.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed – my last review of a different kind of pilgrimage, the true story of Cheryl Wild’s hike of the Pacific Crest Trail
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.