The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry crept into my consciousness earlier this summer when I noticed a tweet by Tetbury’s very excellent independent Yellow Lighted Bookshop. A few weeks later, my lovely family took me to an intimate gig by The Bookshop Band, which itself had been organised by the bookshop. The band had written a couple of songs inspired by the book, and they performed them to an audience of barely 35 people, among whom was Harold Fry’s author, Rachel Joyce. It was a remarkable experience being able to watch her reaction to their interpretation of her début novel.
The songs were lovely, but I couldn’t connect them to anything. Rachel (my wife) bought the book after the gig, and for the next couple of weeks she was transfixed, reading every day, often sniffling, occasionally laughing. She quite clearly loved it, and so I dove in.
The frontispiece to the novel quotes John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the words of my primary school hymn, celebrating the valour, constancy and commitment of the pilgrim. There’s apparently no discouraging pilgrims.
Then the first sentences reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984.
The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings.
Harold and Maureen Fry have been married for decades, living apparently normal lives in a normal town in South Devon. Out of the blue Harold receives a letter from an ex-colleague he hasn’t heard of in years. Queenie tells him in unsentimental tones that she has cancer and is dying. He is somewhat overcome and immediately pens a response, but is dissatisfied. He seems to feel he owes her something better than that. He sets off down the road to the postbox, but before posting the letter, he instead commits to deliver it in person. He starts to walk to see her. But Queenie is over 600 miles away, in Berwick-upon-Tweed in the Scottish borders.
Harold doesn’t go back home to change, put on suitable boots, collect a change of clothes or even tell his wife. There’s nothing conscious about the start of his pilgrimage. Over the course of his journey, we unravel all the details of Harold & Maureen’s past, his childhood, their courtship and early marriage, his working lifetime at the brewery.
We learn that Harold struggled being a father to his son, David, and that something to do with David may have been a catalyst to a breakdown in Harold & Maureen’s marriage. None of this is clear at first, it’s fairly gently revealed in nuggets and hints throughout. It’s as though their very happy marriage de-volved or corroded over time into a distant companionship. They close themselves off in separate bedrooms. Maureen shuts out the world with (or hides from it behind) net curtains.
At first Maureen is furious, abandoned, despairing (we feel this is simply another reason for her to resent or be disappointed in him). But very quickly these feelings shift, and in a chapter of devastating intensity, it becomes clear that
The reason she had stayed with Harold all these years was not David. It wasn’t even because she felt sorry for her husband. She had stayed with him because, however lonely she was with Harold, the world without him would be even more desolate.
On the surface The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry depicts ordinary people in ordinary houses. But it unpeels, often very delicately, what lies beneath, the truly extraordinary depth and breadth of human existence. On his journey, Harold meets countless people who open themselves up to him. Some of these encounters are heartwarming, others are disturbing; the girl at the garage, the cycling mother with scars on her arm, the immigrant nurse waiting for her boyfriend to return. Harold realises it is part of his pilgrimage that he has to accept and even embrace this diversity.
It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.
Harold walks and meets in others the same belief, that they can make things better. He seems to hope that by walking to Queenie, he can keep her alive. The girl in the garage talks about her aunt who is also suffering. Maureen talks to David in a way she seems unable or unwilling to communicate with her husband. Both Harold and Maureen discover that sometimes this sort of abstract faith actually ignores the here-and-now, the everyday, the all-around-us.
Almost inevitably Harold’s quest becomes public property, and for a while the serene isolation in which he has been treading through the country is invaded by the outside world, by people living vicariously through him. He becomes their search for meaning, they try to ascribe a universal importance and meaning to what he is doing, when in fact it is entirely personal. They receive no catharsis from sharing and eventually taking over his quest, because the quest is not theirs to own.
After sequences of great poignancy and sadness throughout the journey, the end of the novel is, if anything, even more tragic. But it comes with its own redemption, acceptance and optimism for the future.
It’s true that Rachel Joyce often aims to evoke a reaction, and her book is, in that sense, manipulative. But it never took me anywhere I didn’t want to go, or anywhere that it hadn’t earned through the authenticity of the relationships and characters it depicts. The characters of Harold and Maureen are as rich and human as anything I’ve read in a long, long time.
And those songs by The Bookshop Band… they’re wonderful.