The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryPhil: At the Stratford Literary Festival “How to get published….or How we did it” event, each of the authors took turns to describe their latest novel to the assembled crowd. When it came to Rachel Joyce, she announced the name of her book, but it was so long that only the avid literary groupies desperately scribbling notes at the back could remember it.

The story concerned a man who suddenly decided to walk to see a friend at the other end of the country. Candice wasn’t sure she liked the sound of this but then she did exciting things like flying off to Mexico. Phil felt much more at home with the idea. Indeed, he wondered at the time what it took for someone to do something so completely out of character. He thought that perhaps it would be fun to do something completely different without thinking about it. On a whim. He thought he might enjoy reading about Harold Fry.

A few months later, he had forgotten all about the book but was reminded when he spotted a copy in the local Oxfam bookshop. According to the front cover, the story had the Sunday Express laughing and sobbing. That didn’t sound like much of a recommendation as the Sunday Express is a dreadful paper more interesting in pronouncing the end of the world or trying to shoehorn mentions of the late Princess Diana into every story. Despite this, the book was soon on its way home in his rucksack.

Reading had to wait for a trip to London that provided several hours train travel, Sat in the cosy confines of a Chiltern Railway seat, he began to turn the pages.

The story follows Harold Fry and his walk to see a dying friend. He convinces himself that she can’t expire until he has reached her and the best way to extend her life is to make the journey take as long as possible. In other words, he will walk from Kingsbridge in Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Phil liked the sound of this as the idea that you would believe that someone would live a bit longer if you undertook some irrelevant task sounded just like the sort of crazy notion he could fixate on. He liked the idea that Harold was completely unprepared. His journey crept up on him a post box at a time. He couldn’t go back home and buy proper boots to replace his yachting shoes or plan the best route because when you step outside your normal life you can’t drop back in for a few minutes. Return home and the door closes, never to re-open.

As Harold makes his way, painfully slowly, he meets lots of different characters. We also gradually learn the story of his life. His marriage. His son. His relationship with Queenie, the friend who he is walking towards. At one point, he passes close to where Phil lives and it amused him to think that the local paper was capable to playing a pivotal role by doing some reporting.

If there was anything that jarred, it was the speed of the journey. Harold might be old and not in the best of health but he seemed to be walking at around 1/2 a mile an hour on good days. Often, the rate of progress was considerably less than this. Phil couldn’t see the reason for this, but decided that with 4 children, the author spends so much time ferrying them around in a people mover that she hadn’t walked anywhere in years and considered 6 miles in a day to be quite a hike.

Apart from this, the book is a pleasant journey. There are twists and you probably won’t guess them in advance – there are some very deliberate red herrings placed – and the way all the characters related to each other made sense. They fitted. All the revelations made sense for the people they involved. As Phil closed the covers after reading the final chapter, it all fitted together like a well made jigsaw. Very satisfying he concluded.

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