When I started reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry it occurred to me how few contemporary novels I read these days. Most of the books I’ve read so far this year have been historical fiction, classics or ‘older’ books, so it was actually a refreshing change to read something written and set in the 21st century for once!
As the title suggests, this is the story of a man who embarks on an unlikely journey from one end of England to the other. His name is Harold Fry and his pilgrimage begins when he receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessey, who is writing to say goodbye because she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Harold writes a letter in reply but on his way to post it he becomes aware of the complete inadequacy of his words. And so Harold just keeps on walking…all the way to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, over five hundred miles away from his home in Devon.
Because it was such a spur of the moment decision, Harold is badly prepared for the walk. He’s wearing the wrong clothes and shoes, he doesn’t have a map and he has left his phone at home. With blistered feet and only a vague idea of the route he needs to take, Harold’s progress is slow but still he continues to put one foot in front of the other, convinced that his pilgrimage will help keep Queenie alive.
As Harold walks, he reflects on the things that have happened in his life, the choices – both good and bad – that he has made, and his relationships with his friends and family. In particular he thinks about what has gone wrong in his marriage to his wife, Maureen, and why he has always found it so difficult to connect with their son, David.
The plot may seem simple but there’s so much emotion and poignancy packed into every page. There’s a sense of mystery too, with lots of questions to be answered. We don’t know at first what exactly happened between Harold and Queenie. What did she do to help him all those years ago? Did they have a romantic relationship or were they just friends? We also don’t know what the problem is with David and why Harold has hardly spoken to him for years. And what was it that caused the rift in Harold and Maureen’s marriage? There are clues to all of these mysteries scattered throughout the story and we learn a little bit more in each chapter, with the truth slowly unfolding as Harold progresses on his journey.
As well as learning about Harold we also spend some time with Maureen, left at home on her own, and it was good to have some of the story told from a different perspective. It was interesting to see how Maureen reacted to her husband’s decision to walk to Berwick and how she tried to come to terms with it, torn between worry, frustration and an understanding that this was something Harold felt he had to do.
During his journey, Harold meets and talks to a variety of people from all walks of life – including a girl who makes him a burger, a Slovakian woman who gives him a room for the night, an American oncologist who explains cancer to him – and most of these are very supportive when they hear about Harold’s mission. Not all of them really understand what he is trying to do, but there’s always the feeling that their lives have been altered in some way by their encounter with Harold. Later his walk starts to attract publicity and Harold finds that he has become a celebrity. He is joined en route by a number of other people, some who have good intentions but others who are walking for the wrong reasons. When the other walkers began to join Harold it felt as if the original purpose of the pilgrimage had been lost, along with the simply beauty of Harold’s walk, and around this point in the book I started to lose interest. But I kept reading because I cared about Harold and Maureen and wanted to know how things would resolve for each of them. And I was rewarded with some wonderful chapters at the end of the book, filled with revelations about Harold, Maureen, Queenie and David.
I didn’t love this book as much as so many other people seem to have done, but I did still enjoy getting to know Harold Fry!
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley