Sunday, August 19, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

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.

Harold Fry is a timid middle-aged man, recently retired from a sales job at a brewery in a small English village. His life has settled into a routine that consists of sitting in his house, occasionally emerging to mow his lawn, and failing to communicate with his wife of many years, Maureen. (Failing to communicate puts it mildly. They are estranged, living in the same house but with years of bitterness and unresolved "issues" between them.)

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.


  1. Great review--you've articulated so much of what I loved about this book.

  2. Lovely review. I've been on the fence about giving this book a try but all the positive reviews it is receiving has me thinking I really should read it.

  3. Your's is the second rave review about this book in the same number of days - somehow I'm going to have to squeeze this into my TBR pile :-)

  4. I felt the same way about this book. I was surprised how much I enjoyed a book about a not very exciting middle aged man walking.

  5. This sounds good. I was looking at the Man Booker longlist the other day and trying to figure out if any of the books were up my alley, but this one didn't jump out at me then. Thanks for the review.

  6. I am happy to have found your review. I just posted this on my new release list and am planning on reading it. Thank you for your detailed review.

    Rowena Hailey (Ptarmigan Alaska)