“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce (2012) – 320 pages Read by Jim Broadbent
While I was reading “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, this exceptional novel reminded me of another story of an old man’s redemption, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. Nearly every Christmas I try to make room for some version of “A Christmas Carol”, my favorite being the 1951 Alastair Sim movie. The story of the transformation of the old man Ebenezer Scrooge is so powerful, it holds up with repeated tellings and viewings. After reading “Harold Fry”, I was so moved I am willing to put this new novel about the redemption of an old man, Harold Fry, and his wife, Maureen, in the same league as “A Christmas Carol”. It is a phenomenally affecting story.
I listened to “Harold Fry” on audio book which is probably the ideal format for the novel. Rachel Joyce wrote and acted in radio plays before she wrote this first novel, so the audio fits her perfectly. The publisher hired big name actor Jim Broadbent to read the novel, so they knew very early on that they had a winner on their hands.
The premise of “Harold Fry” is very simple. One day Harold Fry receives a letter from an old friend he used to work with, Queenie Hennessy , who is writing to tell him that she is dying of cancer. Harold Fry writes a short response and goes to mail it. On the way to the mailbox, he realizes his response is inadequate. He decides instead to go past the mailbox and walk all the way from Kingsbridge in southern England to Berwick-upon-Tweed in northern England to see Queenie in person, to save her life by ‘putting one foot in front of the other’.
Harold and his wife Maureen have been in a rut for many years, and Harold’s decision to walk these 500+ miles jolts them both so they can look at all things anew. Harold and Maureen as well as their neighbor Rex are all very middle-class English, and there is a lot of humor in their interactions. As you would expect of someone who writes radio plays, Rachel Joyce has a perfect ear for dialogue.
Along the way, Harold meets many people who all admire his single-minded decision to make this long walking trek to save Queenie. All that I’ve mentioned so far occurs in the first few pages, and I won’t give away any more of the plot. Let’s just say that occasionally when I read a novel my eyes will fill with tears, but it is very rare that I will actually start bawling with the emotion of it all. “Harold Fry” is that kind of novel.
I suppose this long walk by Harold Fry could be considered an allegory, but it is so grounded in reality it doesn’t feel like an allegory. It also reminded me of another trip in a famous story. In “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, our hero decides to cross from one end of his suburban city to the other, swimming across every swimming pool he encounters. In both ‘The Swimmer” and “Harold Fry” the protagonist’s trip is not just a trip; it has a more profound significance. .
While listening to this novel, I hung on to nearly every word. Having read so many novels before, I always look for missteps by the author, things that detract. There were none here. Every scene is exactly as you want it to be. That is why I believe that “Harold Fry” will become a classic. I can see people still reading “Harold Fry” many years from now, still drawn by its emotional power. The scenes and dialogue make “Harold Fry ideal movie material, and with the right director and actors, it could be excellent.
A few days ago the 2012 Man-Booker longlist was released; there were so many names of authors on the list I had never heard of that I felt apathetic and indifferent about the list. After reading “Harold Fry”, I no longer am apathetic or indifferent.