The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, 627 miles in 87 days

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.

Unlikely PilgrimageHarold 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.

Harolds journey

Harolds journey up England

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.

BBCInterview – 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.

41 thoughts on “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, 627 miles in 87 days

  1. lovely and interesting review a la usual! i pre-supp. i would looove this novel (and rushed over to b-a-bar to buy it in hardback) like we so love and swoon over our belovedest books and was surprised to find it hard to slip into. i wondered if it was b.c, as you said, it was a very english book (but i often love that); i don’t think that was it but rather that i too often felt one could sense the writer at work getting between the reader and harold. but maybe it was that particular week and whatever this reader brought to the page — will dig into it again (post-hare 🙂 ). xxoo


    • I read it that week I had the flu and I held onto Harold’s coat-tails knowing that f he could make it up England, I could get my own pitiful health back. I sensed something about the writer and perhaps it was that this did indeed start out as a play and was adapted – she admits to being a fiddler especially with beginnings, however, once you get on the road with Harold, it flies along, but of course always with that inherent englishness 🙂 It’s a good book to read when we need to “endure” something in our own lives.


  2. I loved this book which I heard in a slightly different form as a radio play some time ago. I think you can see the structure of the original medium behind the writing, but it’s none the worse for that.


  3. I read Harold Fry last year when it was on the Booker longlist – thought it deserved to get to the shortlist, although I found aspects of it slightly unrealistic. However, as a modern Pilgrim’s Progress and a voyage of discovery it is a heartwarming tale. As Alex says, the dramatic structure is in evidence – but I read once that you should construct a novel like a three-act play, so perhaps the two aren’t that far apart.


    • I agree there were some aspects that didn’t ring quite true, actually Harold seemed a decade older to me than the age depicted, and once the pilgrims join in, the atmosphere changes somewhat, as we are no longer just with Harold, but I enjoyed being on the journey and was happy when he returned to his original objective.


    • And you know I love sharing what I read, but the irony is that I do feel the teensiest bit guilty about loading everyone up, I wish postage was free, I’d be distributing the books worldwide as gifts 🙂

      But then I think, well, I’m a reader who reads many reviews of books that lodge somewhere in my mind on that list of, will read this when I come across it and even the list of won’t necessarily read, but like to be aware of and there is the potential to be influenced by others I encounter who may also have read it.

      So please please feel to read, if only to appreciate the knowledge of a certain book, so we can all say, yes, I’ve heard about that book somewhere 🙂


  4. Thank you for dropping by my blog 🙂 Always a pleasure to meet another book lover! Loved your review – especially where you say the pilgrimage is that much more interesting even when the pilgrim doesn’t know he’s on it! I totally agree – I think that is precisely what makes it a great and authentic journey!


  5. This book seems much loved another positive review I do like idea of someone just going out and carrying on reminds me slightly of the scenes in Forrest Gump where he goes on a year long run sometimes travelling can clear your mind lovely review all the best stu


  6. Gosh Claire. You have been reading all of the same ARCs copies I obtained from Netgalley (“Honour” and this) and I can’t wait to read this one too! I’ll skip reading your review for now and come back to it later. 🙂


    • Tell me about it, I have that deceptive kindle device, loaded bookshelves, a bedside table that is about to topple and I still can’t keep away from the library – spent an hour there today, fortunately or unfortunately I didn’t have my card with me – spotted Jeanette Winterson’s book there and shall have to go back and find it one day soon. I guess it’s only window shopping really, isn’t it?


      • Hello
        Finally got stuck into this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. A very different kind of plot that proved to be quite a page-turner. My only reservation was that for some reason I couldn’t imagine his face. His feet yes, but his appearance escaped me. I think one of your other commenters said that he seemed older than his alleged age (60?). He seemed like a worn-down person out of HG Wells rather than a contemporary retiree. But it was a very fresh and interesting novel – didn’t see the ending coming at all. A good recommendation – thanks!


        • That’s true, I didn’t get an impression of how he looked either, I think the name Harold is almost a cliche, but interesting that something prevents us from imaging how he looks.

          I had a discussion on another blog with someone who felt he was being portrayed as older than he is, one can no longer resort to cliches when describing baby boomers, they are forever young I believe!

          However, like you, I really enjoyed the read, ironically it is life-affirming.


  7. This has been on the possible buys list for a while, thanks for helping me make my mind up, for I like your taste in books and trust my money with you, so no pressure.


      • I remain positive that one day we will both be reaching for the copy of some obscure classic and then have to have a bit of a scuffle, before I politely let you have the book and then we go for a chat and a coffee.


        • Unlikely to be a scuffle, more like a “you take it”, “No, you” insistence. I’d be happy to read it after you. Just back from London today and had wonderful coffee each of the 3 days I was there AND cake, my how the cake selection has become so enticing! Just as well I no longer live there.


  8. I am really glad you enjoyed this title. Me, I thought it was a good novel, but not quite up to the high expectations I had for it. I really liked the premise but at times I felt frustrated with Harold and Maureen. Interesting you mention imagining it on screen… I actually think I would have preferred in a movie format. There are some moments in this novel that could be so poignant and stunning depicted visually.


    • I think I just accept that frustration of ‘the very British character’, but it is one that used endlessly on the small screen and on radio and so the fact that this story was originally a radio play means it was something that worked well for that audience (interesting to ponder how different a BBC Radio 4 audience might be in profile compared to actual readers of the book).

      I think it would make a really funny film, easier to accept the characters too.


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  10. I really enjoyed this book! I was really attached to Harold and was walking along with him. A moving book for me, a good read.


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