Harold’s story begins with him receiving a letter from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy, breaking the news that she is dying from cancer. In his English stiff upper lipped way Harold writes an inadequate response and sets out to post it wearing only his yachting shoes. He leaves his unhappy wife Maureen at home vacuuming. As he passes post box after post box, but fails to send the letter, he realises that instead he must walk from Kingsbridge in Devon to see Queenie in Berwick-upon-Tweed and that by doing this he will keep her alive. He rewrites his letter telling Queenie that she must wait for him.
And so Harold’s pilgrimage begins. As he walks the roads of England, Harold assesses his strained relationships with his wife and son and we see him despair over his apparent failings towards them. This is a man, who in his twilight years, is coming to an understanding of who he has been and the man he is becoming through the effort of simply putting one foot in front of the other. As the title suggests, there is a spiritual element to his journey, but not one that is always apparent to Harold. In a particularly tender moment, Harold meets a woman, an Eastern European doctor working as a cleaner, who bathes Harold’s tired and blistered feet. The religious symbolism, although obvious, is not trite.
This totally charming book is the debut novel of Rachel Joyce. She has written over twenty original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4 and this story started out as one of those plays, written for her father when he was dying from cancer. Joyce’s narrative is deceptively simple, a man walks from Devon to Berwick to save his friend, but there is so much more to this story than that. At times the writing feels so intensely personal it’s as though what she’s writing about isn’t actually what she’s trying to say and as the story unfolds and we learn what drives Harold to complete his pilgrimage, the story becomes unbearably poignant.
I really loved Joyce’s superb control over the pace of the narrative. She is an extremely skilled writer. There was no point in this story where your reviewer thought, just get on with it. In fact, I read this book a lot more slowly than I have a book for ages simply because I didn’t want it to end. Her prose is light and easy to read, yet at times profound and heartbreaking. It is the casual way she slips comments such as ‘worse; the son who didn’t speak to him and the wife he had betrayed’ so unexpectedly into the story that makes you sit up and notice that this is a writer totally in control.
This is a story to make you want to get out and walk in the English countryside. Joyce’s descriptions of the landscape Harold occupies, the flowers and smells and sights he sees on the way, are so precise that I would be greatly surprised if she is not a keen walker herself. Her lens moves in and out of Harold’s surroundings with enormous skill and accuracy; we are truly with him on his walk.
As Harold undertakes his pilgrimage he meets many characters along the way, some of whom eventually join him. Eventually though, Harold yearns for them to disappear so that he can once again assume his simple act in solitary peace. Joyce has a great knack of bringing these fleeting characters to life revealing each of their stories slowly, in ever deepening layers and in so doing giving them purpose in the story. These extraneous characters make as much of an impression on us as they do on Harold himself.
Any Cop?: Absolutely yes. This is a story that captures the human desire to believe in something; to have faith that we matter in the world. Harold Fry is an unlikely hero; a simple man undertaking an extraordinary odyssey and that’s its power. It’s a beautiful story, brilliantly told. I loved it.