My Thoughts About The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Book Review #83)

Originally written as a short radio play, this debut novel was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.

Meet Harold Fry, a 65-year retired sales agent from a local brewery with a troubled past and a far from perfect present. One normal spring day he received an unexpected letter from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy, whom he last saw 20 years ago, informing him that she has terminal cancer. Queenie had done him a great favor in the past and he’s had never got the chance to thank her. His dull life was to change with the arrival of that letter.

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What started as an errand to just post a reply letter ended with his spur-of-the-moment decision to visit his friend believing that it will make his friend live a little bit longer because she will wait for him. She phoned the hospice where his friend is staying and his wife, Maureen, informing them of his plans. And thus began the 600-mile journey of an unlikely pilgrim, who was described as someone has never walked longer than his driveway, from their house in Devon, located at the Southern tip of England to Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is at the Northern tip, without any proper travel gears aside from the shirt that he’s wearing and his yachting shoes.

As Harold walks towards his destination, readers are being introduced to Harold’s past specifically his relationship with his mother and father, Queenie, his son David and wife Maureen. His journey became a time for him to think what happened to his life and to reflect what went wrong. Harold’s mother left them when he’s still young and his father isolated him from his world and who in who in his 16th birthday gifted him a cot and showed him the door out. Queenie, his co-worker who did something to save him 20 years ago but he was not able to thank her for that. David no longer talks or even visit his father. He and his wife have become distant with each other because of a tragedy that made their relationship go stale and cold. His wife spends her day cleaning their already cleaned house and always finds time to criticize him. He no longer finds purpose after his retirement. What were the circumstances that lead to his situation? The letter became the key for him to amend with his past and deal with his present.

What drew me in to this book is it’s exciting premise and the title but somehow I was a little bit disappointed with how the story was structured. But let me point first the book’s strong points. First, I like how the book explored the relationship of Harold and the above-mentioned people. I like how the stories were crafted and made to connect with each other aside from one that I will discuss later. I like the author’s approach of immersing her readers to the life of Harold as he tried to relinquish the past, compare it to the present and focus on the future. The use of simple and melodic words really did the book good.

I also like how Harold’s journey also eventually became his wife’s journey towards self-realization. Being alone helped her come to terms with his husband. She felt how their lack of communication and long-standing resentment deeply affected each one of them. The distance between the couple allowed them to think about what happened to their relationship. About why, for the last years, they are drifting apart. His 87-day journey became a reflection of his 47-year marriage, his relationship with his wife and son from which he is almost completely estranged.

I also enjoyed how the author was able to paint a vivid description of Harold’s journey, the people that he meet, the England landscape and its local flora and fauna.

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Now, to the parts that I had issues with. First, despite the fact the it’s not that thick, my patience was tested by this book. Like what I said it’s with the structure. I enjoyed the beginning of this book, it rolled out where the book is heading. I thought that it was clear for me but then, the author started leaving out some vital information specifically about Harold and Queenie’s relationship that made me question Harold’s journey. All the time, I was looking for clues that will give me an idea but I found none. Why would Harold insist on walking to see Queenie despite not seeing each other for 20 years? Maybe I was just expecting some kind of twist that did not happen but no, I blame it to the fact that the author just left that thought hanging until I got my answer only at the ending of the book where everything will make sense. That removed my focus away from Harold’s emotional journey. I know that I am reading a person’s journey towards self discovery but all the time I felt like I was missing something and it’s what has caused me to hold back and not totally connect to the book.

Second, what I also did not appreciate while I was reading this book was how the shifting of emotions was overly done. I understand that the journey that Harold is doing may at times be marked with self-doubts but how it was presented in the book became too much sometimes to the point that it became irritating to read. I find Harold’s emotional outbreaks to be too much and at times repetitive especially at the last quarter of the book. At one point he’ll be this all too positive guy, with all the hopes in the world then after a couple of pages, his confidence will just take a plunge. There came to a point where I was like talking to the book and rolling my eyes telling Harold to just get it over with and finish his journey.

The middle part dragged too much. I found myself forcefully reading it. I like the first few people specially the Slovakian woman who is still hoping for his lover too return despite being gone for a year that he met on his journey but it came to a point where I felt like the author is just putting people along his way to make the story longer. The book became so formulaic. He will tire, lost his confidence then he’ll meet a person along his way who will remind him about what his journey is all about then his determination will get fired up and he will again let go of his beliefs and will start doubting what he started then a new person comes up then it the cycle will be repeated. It became predictable. It seems fitting if the novel could have been a little shorter.

It also seems like a very far-fetched idea that nothing bad happened to him during his journey specially after he decided to leave everything of his possessions and just depend on his surroundings for survival. It could have added a little more spice to the story and not just Harold meeting one person after another.

Still, how the book talked about beginnings and forgiveness, how sometimes our irrational decision could sometimes lead to amazing discoveries, trusting the goodness in every person you meet, and redemption knows no age is something that is commendable. The book ended not as how I expected it to end but when I come to think about it more, it’s fitting.

Overall, this is one of the books that I know I’ll enjoy when I’ll reread it. Now that I already know what’s the story, I can now focus and appreciate the journey of faith and discovery that Harold went through while doing his pilgrimage.

3 stars out of 5.

BOOK SPECIFICATIONS:

Author: Rachel Joyce
Format: Hardbound
Part of a Series: Series
Release Year: July 2012
Publisher: Random House
No. of Pages: 320 pages

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