Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I have read and reviewed here some fine “walking” books. I’m thinking of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. These books use walking to create a reflective journey, showing how physical space can affect our mental space. As much as I enjoyed — no, loved — these three books, I was wary about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), which was recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. See, there are also “walking” books I don’t like that use some journey to represent some checklist through life’s lessons (I’m thinking of David Gutterson’s East of the Mountains). These sentimental books, though the characters are always struggling with some darkness in their past, shine light into every corner, making sure we know that the wandering narrator — as well as the reader — has been edified; this new perspective afforded by the journey can teach us all a thing or two. From its description, I suspected Harold Fry would be that kind of sentimental book.

Review copy courtesy of Random House.

And this book has left me somewhat flummoxed. Indeed, Harold Fry is that kind of sentimental journey, and I really disliked it for that reason. However, in many segments, Joyce shows her fine ability to illustrate all of the reasons we should feel for her characters, and, though still sentimental, at those moments I was happy to let her carry me off. Consequently, I enjoyed a book that I also disliked immensely, and strangely those two feelings are related.

Harold Fry is a recently retired sixty-five-year-old. He lives on the southern coast of England in the small town of Kingsbridge, Devon. His wife, Maureen, doesn’t know what to do with this man wandering around the house. It’s been years and years since they shared any affection. One morning, Harold gets a letter in the post from an old acquaintance named Queenie Hennessy. He hasn’t heard from her in two decades, but she’s writing him now to say goodbye. She’s in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed (on the northern-most tip of England), and she’s dying of cancer. Shocked, Harold’s mind uncomfortably thinks of how he disappointed — even betrayed — Queenie all those years ago, and he struggles to find a suitable reply. He fails to write anything adequate in his short letter to Queenie, but he leaves to drop his reply in the mail. When he arrives at the mailbox, he decides to walk just a bit farther, and then a bit farther, and still a bit farther. Walking is a way for him to mourn, to reflect, to put off doing what he doesn’t want to do, and to escape his home, his wife, and himself. Spurred on by the unwitting words of a girl who sells him a hamburger, Harold makes one of the only spontaneous decisions of his life: if he walks all the way to Berwick-upon-Tweed, Queenie will have to wait for him; therefore, Queenie will continue to live.

Thus begins The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and I suspect that you already know pretty much how this books will play out. After Harold’s initial burst of energy, he will tire and become discouraged by self-doubt (self-doubt brought on because while walking he has plenty of time to think about how disappointed he is in himself). Someone will come along and, again usually unwittingly, say something encouraging, often in the form of a little nugget of life’s wisdom, and Harold will fight through his pain and continue with new resolve.

As Harold walks north, we focus on his relationship with four people: Maureen, Queenie, his estranged son David, and his mother. In the book’s early pages, we learn Maureen is tired of the man after putting up with him for forty-seven years; though confused about how things could be so different from their happy early years, Harold probably doesn’t blame her for being disappointed. We learn that something happened with Queenie, who was a co-worker, all those years ago, and we don’t know what until quite late in the book. We learn that David doesn’t speak to his father anymore (even when he did, the way he said “father” suggested “the bond between them was a whim of irony, rather than blood”). We learn that his mother abandoned him when he was a young teenager, because she never wanted a child in the first place. Really, Harold has disappointed and been disappointed by all of the central people in his life. But on that first page he got “the letter that would change everything.”

The book was strongest for me when these relationships were explored. It’s in those passages, where Harold drifts into his past for a few pages when the sun is getting hot and his legs are on auto-pilot, that Joyce shows these relationships develop and fall, and it really is emotionally difficult to read, so much do we want to reach out and help these lonely people who look normal on the outside.

But this is also where some of my central problems with the book enter. These memories are couched in chapters that begin to feel formulaic (as if the book’s structure — sorrow, hope, sorrow, repeat — weren’t formulaic enough). The chapter often begins with Harold walking; he begins to think of his past, which leads to disappointment; he meets someone; that person offers hope; he continues walking. No, it’s not that simple (in fact, I was often surprised at how fresh Joyce could make all of this feel chapter after chapter), but basically that’s what we have here. It is often a slog to get through, and not in a way that is supposed to make us feel the tedium and exhaustion of Harold’s journey. On the contrary, much of the book is set up in such a way that makes effectively alienates us from Harold.

The development of these relationships is such that we don’t know what’s really going on until near the end; in other words, we are slightly manipulated to suspect something but we keep getting dragged on without knowing for sure. I’m going to spoil something here, but it illustrates my point: at the beginning of the book we are led to believe that something untoward happened between Harold and Queenie. After all, why would a co-worker write him after twenty years, and why else would Harold abandon his wife to walk north to see another woman to whom he hadn’t spoken in all that time? And Joyce feeds this conception with sentences like this: “Worse: the son who didn’t speak to him and the wife he had betrayed.” Truth is, Harold and Queenie had a chaste friendship. Sadly, the truth is much more interesting and thought-provoking than what we are led to believe, but for some reason — I don’t know, to make us feel some undeserved tension? — we don’t get the benefit of working through the real issues with Harold until late in the book. 

That is one of the main differences between this book, and others like it, and the ones of the Chejfec, Galgut, Sebald variety. In those books, as well as the physical journey, we get to go on the mental and spiritual journey with the characters. Here, we not only suffer as readers because the author is withholding vital information and also actively misleading us. Consequently, we can’t really join Harold on anything but his physical journey. Meanwhile, it feels like we are on his spiritual and mental journey because we are force-fed a bunch of platitudes like: “Life was very different when you walked through it” or “Maybe you saw even more than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet.” Just as tiring are the characters who com on stage for only a moment to say trite things like: “‘The truth is,’ and here he wiggled his ear with his finger, ‘we’ve all got a past. We’ve all got things we wish we’d done, or hadn’t. Good luck to you. I hope you find the lady.'”

There is a lot to love in this book. Yes, many of the characters who appear, particularly at the beginning of the book, seem to be there only to get Harold’s — and the book’s — engine going. But we do meet some people along the way who really are heartbreaking, and we believe that if we were to walk around and pay attention we’d notice that everyone has some darkness in their lives and maybe we can provide a bit of light, in the process receiving a bit of light from them. We feel that their situations are worth reflecting on. As I mentioned a bit ago, the real story of Harold’s past is also worth reflecting on, but we work around the book’s structure before we get there (making the book’s ending quite strong). And Joyce’s writing, when she doesn’t feel the need to unleash aphorisms about life’s journey, is very good, at once giving us insight into a character’s past and personality. For example, many of the moments where she has Harold talking to or thinking about David are strong: “Harold had spent his whole life bowing his head to avoid confrontation, and yet, spilled from his own flesh was someone determined to hold his eye and have it out with him.” She also does a great job making us believe in a few — not all — of the transformations that take place, particularly the one Maureen undergoes as she realizes she misses Harold: “She had stayed because, however lonely she was with Harold, the world without him would be even more desolate.”

But for me these strengths only emphasize — and are severely undercut by — the book’s weaknesses. There’s darkness in these relationships, and it’s sad that Joyce feels the need to cast a false light over the shadows. Let the light shine through, but not through a false structure and by way of trite tidbits of wisdom.

14 thoughts on “Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

  1. Oh dear. This is the third review of this I’ve read (the others here and here). Even though the second of those links is on the positive side, I just don’t see myself reading this. I hate having my heart warmed.

    There may well be a lot to love, but it ultimately sounds pat and that’s just not what I read literary fiction for. Too neat. It’ll be interesting to see if it makes the shortlist.

  2. Trevor says:

    No, Max, do not be tempted by anything you read about this book. I know your tastes well enough to know you’d rather be run over.

  3. Hah! Thanks Trevor. I’ll steer well clear.

    I did like by the way the counterexamples you opened with, the two strands of walking books. I have the Sebald and Galgut (partly due to your reviews in fact) and have high hopes for both. I’ll check your archives for the Chejfec.

  4. leroyhunter says:

    Max: I honestly cannot imagine you have anything better then Rings of Saturn sitting in your TBR pile. Bump it!

    Trevor: you’ve been more then fair here, but you lost me from the moment I found out the novel has a character called Queenie in it.

  5. Lee Monks says:

    Max: Apart from Chejfec, which I have but haven’t read, the examples cited are indeed wonderful. And I can only second leroyhunter’s promulgation of Sebald, a truly essential writer.

    Trevor: I feel that this should stand as the definitive review of the Joyce book. Good work. I will steer clear of reiterating my annoyance at the longlist, save to say that this should not be on there. (Nor should Ned Beauman. No no stop.)

  6. Trevor says:

    I agree with Leroy, Max; The Rings of Saturn is just one of those books. You’re doing yourself no favor by putting it off :)

    Lee, thanks for the compliment, though I’m sure many others would disagree :).

    I’m not sure how I’ll feel about this year’s Booker. I started Swimming Home and am enjoying it, so hopefully things will perk up. Not that I’m going to devote myself to it this year (or probably ever again).

  7. I had the impression the Sebald was more of an autumn/winter read. Seeing the praise above though am I doing myself a disservice not leaping to it despite the current UK heat?

  8. Trevor says:

    Hmmm, that is a valid question, Max. I think it is one of those books that will stand out regardless of when you read it, but if I could pick the perfect time to read it I might say just when the days start getting a bit colder. Perhaps more importantly, though, is to read it in quiet and with time for reflection.

  9. It’ll have to wait until I’m a little quieter at work than I presently am then, but it’s definitely gone a long way up the TBR queue.

  10. Max: I am with Trevor on that comment — Sebald is best read when you want to settle back in for an interesting and challenging off-weather read.

    Personally, I would opt for Austerlitz over The Rings of Saturn — it too is a “travel” novel — but that is purely a matter of personal taste.

  11. Rings has the rather marked advantage that I already own it. I shall have to save Austerlitz therefore for future Sebald explorations.

  12. Lee Monks says:

    Rather a waste of time my siding with Kevin on this, then, but any Sebald is essential.

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