What attracts me to books like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is what I like to think of as their inherent quietness. Devoid of grand adventures and ‘epic-ness’, these books tell stories of essentially the ordinary man and woman of the world. Harold and Maureen could be any old couple with a past. The issues they grapple with – loneliness, alienation from one another, coming to grips with their past actions – are recurring themes in all our lives.
One fine day Harold Fry, a 65 year old retired salesman gets a letter from a co-worker he has not been in touch with in the last 20 years. On his way to post his reply, a fateful encounter plants in his mind the idea of delivering the letter himself, spurring his 500 miles journey across England from Kingsbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed.
The bulk of the book deals with Harold’s journey, both literal and metaphorical. He re-visits memories he thought he’d long forgotten. He meets an entire cast of characters whose stories bring home to him the universality of the human experience. As Harold puts one foot in front of the other to reach Berwick-upon-Tweed, he begins to find an acceptance of his past – the one which was inflicted on him by his parents and the one which he thinks he inflicted on his son. Meanwhile, Harold’s unlikely journey forces Maureen to step out of the world she’s cocooned herself in, forcing her to see her husband in a new light.
The prose is beautiful with some gorgeous descriptions of the English countryside. However, I did find some of Harold’s encounters contrived and a little out of the realm of the believable. A few of the ‘entourage’ scenes seemed unnecessarily drawn-out – I wanted to tell Rachel Joyce that yes we understand that Harold is the quintessential English gentleman and that there is no need to belabor the point.
While I enjoyed Harold’s and Maureen’s story I could not make myself love it the way I loved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, two other books in the same vein. Perhaps this is because while hopeful, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry lacks the ebullience of the other two. (Though honesty compels me to add that this of course cannot be an indictment of the story itself – more than likely Miss Joyce intended it to be so). In any case if you don’t mind quiet contemplative fares where the story is more character driven than plot driven you’ll enjoy this one.