Retiree Harold Fry has spent most of his life, he thinks, being a failure. He’s let down his son, never advanced very far in his career, virtually separated from his wife Maureen despite living in the same house, and lost the only friend he really made. When he receives a letter from that friend, Queenie Hennessey, dying of cancer 600 miles away in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Harold at first simply writes her a nice note and leaves the house to take it to the post box. When he reaches that post box, he thinks – why not go a little further into town? And so begins Harold’s walk up England and his quest to keep Queenie alive, transforming the remainder of his life for good.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has been getting tons of press lately; lots of reviews from bloggers and a lot of attention from mainstream media too. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and highlighted by Waterstone’s, I found it impossible to resist reading this charming little book for myself. In fact, I bought and started reading it on the same day, very curious to see what all the fuss was about.
What I found was an insightful, truly heart-warming and moving book about an old man’s quest to find the friend he adores. Harold is such a timid soul; he despises attention and has no confidence in himself whatsoever. He’s not seeking attention and he’s not even sure that he can do it. But he reckons, inspired by a girl he meets in a garage, that if he can walk 600 miles, his old friend from work, Queenie, can stay alive, and maybe even get cured. He loves his wife, Maureen, but the gulf between them is now so wide that he doesn’t even tell her he’s going, bringing us to the other half of the story; the woman left behind.
It’s hard to review this book without really giving away much of the story. I didn’t really know much at all and I liked it very much that way. The story is by turns sad, sweet, and even funny sometimes, as we follow Harold on his unlikely journey north. My heart broke for him and Maureen on a regular basis, it seemed, as they played out the memories of their life together, the slow road they travelled together away from love and towards estrangement. The slide towards taking each other for granted, towards settling rather than striving, towards mediocrity. It makes Harold’s journey so, so poignant and perfect in comparison, the completely unexpected act of a man who has always done the expected.
The book itself is written in beautiful, at times deceptively simple and easy to read yet perfect prose, making the story come to life. Harold’s hardships are by no means ignored; he spends a large part of the early walk in serious pain from lack of preparation until he meets a woman who was a doctor once. The descriptions of the English countryside are beautiful, especially in the beginning of the book, and the level of Harold’s reflection is directly tied to his mood. As I read and experienced their past, I was completely swept away by emotion and found myself near to tears more than once.
There is a reason that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has received so much acclaim. It is a simply beautiful, charming, at times heart-rending book that is very much worth your time.
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