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Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I don’t know quite why I picked up this book. I think at first both the title and the cover really appealed but it was the blurb that sold me. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of those books that within a few lines you know you are going to love.

This is the tale of Harold Fry, recently retired and seemingly waiting for his life to be over. Each day is much like the last as he and his wife, Maureen (who you initially dislike) simply co-exist, going through the motions and habits by which they’ve survived the last couple of decades. Strangers in a not so strange land. That is, until one day Harold receives a letter that changes his life.

Learning that an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, is dying of cancer, Harold writes back to her, uncertain what to say or how, but making a fairly ordinary attempt. Leaving the house to posThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fryt it, he suddenly becomes aware of the world around him, not in an epiphanic kind of way, just a gradual unfolding that is calm but no less wondrous for this. Deciding he’s enjoying walking, the sounds, sighs and smells,  he doesn’t post the letter at the first post box, but walks to the next, wanting to prolong the experience, then the next and so on until he makes a decision: bugger posting the letter, he will walk to Queenie who is in palliative care over 600 miles away and express the sentiments he struggled to write in person.

And so, without fanfare or warning or preparation, Harold’s pilgrimage begins. Each shuffle, step, bunion, blister, meal, shelter, and companion, heralds a type of transformation or awakening, but also a reaffirming. But it’s who Harold meets along the way, the manner in which his journey is both understood and misrepresented by various people, that provides another kind of trial, a rest of endurance for Harold – not all of which he passes.

Written mainly from Harold’s point of view, we are also given access to Maureen’s perspective of her husband’s perambulations and the attention they receive and the impact all of this has on her. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder so much as as alter, reignite and reconsider.

Distance from home and from his wife of many, many years allows Harold to reflect upon and view his life, past and current, differently – it gives him perspective and more. Likewise for his wife and thus the reader begins to understand how and why Harold came to be who and where he is and why his pilgrimage is not only a journey to find and say goodbye to an old friend, but himself.

Poetically told, incredibly moving, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is like a modern fable of disconnection and reconnection, aging, youth, the power of the media, love, friendship and self-discovery. Funny at times, capable of biting satire and stirring insights into the human condition, this is a marvellous novel that, like a few I have read lately, is original and lingers in the heart and mind long after the last page.

Simply lovely.

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