I’ve just finished a wonderfully charming contemporary literary novel–a nominee for the 2012 Man Booker Prize– The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.
A letter arrives from a co-worker, Queenie, who abruptly moved away twenty years ago. Harold has not heard from her in all that time but now she informs him she is dying of an inoperable cancer. She just wanted to say goodbye and to thank him for his past friendship.
Harold is moved/horrified. He tries to write a response, but what can he possibly say? He ends up with a note he knows is inadequate and sets off for the postbox to mail it. As he passes the first mailbox, he decides to keep walking. And walking. Then he makes up his mind to walk all the way to the hospice to see Queenie in person. (A journey of more than 500 miles.)
Along the way, Harold, who has always been an introverted person, comes to rely on interactions with strangers. Sometimes he draws strength from their support but, increasingly, the fact of his pilgrimage inspires others. And during the long hours he spends walking, he relives the events of his life that brought him to the low point he and Maureen had reached. Once they were a happy, hopeful young couple. They had been in love. Then they had a son, David.
In halting, fragmented memories, Harold remembers his own youth, his own broken family. He circles around the troubles in his marriage, his troubles with David. Whose fault? He circles around the event that led to Queenie’s abrupt departure twenty years previously and the breaking of a friendship that had meant much to them both.
How can a book where the main action is essentially a middle-aged man walking along a road be a page-turner? Read Joyce’s book and find out. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a beautiful story about relationships and discovering what is truly important in life.