The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Republished back into my blog’s timeline from my old blog., combined  2012 posts from author event and book review…

World Book Night 2012 in Abingdon with Rachel Joyce

I spent the evening of World Book Night at Abingdon Library in the company of Rachel Joyce – the bestselling author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I read this book at the end of March and loved it – my review follows below.

After reading from the novel, Rachel then talked in conversation with Alison from Transworld Books before opening up the floor to questions. Although this is her first novel, Rachel has honed her art on radio, writing plays and adapting novels for Woman’s hour and the afternoon play on BBC Radio 4.  It was fascinating to hear her talk about writing for radio and the differences between that and writing a novel.

Her novel started out as a 45 minute radio play that she wrote for her father who was dying of cancer; sadly he never got to hear it, but it went on to win an award. Radio plays have around 7000 words in their 45 minutes, compared with say 90,000 in a typical novel.  Each scene has to have an essential plot point to it – otherwise it’s superfluous, and each episode has to end on a hook. She kept this structure in the novel, but of course gained the freedom to expand and describe all the background and landscape that can’t be included in a short play.

The novel has a large cast of supporting characters, and Rachel explained a little about some of them from the Girl in the Garage – the catalyst for Harold’s journey who has faith, but is grounded serving burgers.  Then there are the various people who talk to Harold on his journey – you can confide in someone who’s passing through. Rachel confessed that her children and one of her dogs also appear in the book.  Later in the book, Harold becomes a bit of a cause célèbre, and a band of other pilgrims gather around him, and he has to confront things, whereas before he has been very British and polite about everything. Then there’s Maureen, Harold’s closed-in wife, who has as hard a journey as Harold – harder even, as she is left at home.  Harold has the physical aspects of his trek as well as the emotional one, and Maureen who starts off as a rather sharp woman has a hard time coming to terms with her life, but she does ultimately soften.

When asked about how she planned the route of Harold’s journey, she chose the starting point of Kingsbridge in South Devon as that’s where her husband was brought up and they knew the area really well. As for the rest of the route up to Berwick-upon-Tweed, some of it is detailed, other sections less so, but Rachel had a roll of paper charting Harold’s daily progress in detail. It wasn’t all serious though, Rachel recounted some great things her children had said whilst she was writing the book, and how she used them to take notes when she had inspirations while on the school run.

This all made for a delightful evening, and I got my proof copy of the book signed. So that was what I did on World Book Night 2012. How about you?

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

“I would walk 500 miles” – well 627 actually…

This is a road novel, but with a difference.  Harold Fry used to rep for the brewery, but he’s now retired.  He has nothing to do but get in his wife Maureen’s way.  He’s in a rut, they’re in a rut, basically ever since their son David left, they’ve been in a rut – that’s a lot of rut.

Then one morning a letter arrives for Harold  from Queenie who used to work in accounts at the brewery. It says she is dying of cancer and in a hospice at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold writes a short letter back, sets off to post it, and as he walks he gets a bit teary thinking about Maureen and David while watching a mother with her son…

Office workers were laughing with lunchtime pints outside the Old Creek Inn, but Harold barely noticed. As he began the steep climb up Fore Street, he thought about the mother who was so absorbed in her son she saw no one else. It occurred to him it was Maureen who spoke to David and told him their news. It was Maureen who had always written Harold’s name (‘Dad’) in the letters and cards. It was even Maureen who had found the nursing home for his father. And it begged the question – as he pushed the button at the pelican crossing – that if she was, in effect, Harold, ‘Then who am I?’ He strode past the post office without even stopping.

It’s the girl in the garage who confirms to him what he should do. He stops for a snack, and she tells him about her aunt who had cancer and they all prayed for her to get better. Harold doesn’t turn back, he’s decided to walk all the way to Berwick. The only problem is that he’s in the South Hams in Devon – it’s 627 miles. A life-changing decision for Harold is indeed an unlikely pilgrim. He’s totally under-equipped, wearing the wrong shoes, the wrong clothes and with no supplies or first-aid kit; it’s not long before he gets bad blisters.

He plods along, blisters allowing, inching towards his destination by six, seven, or maybe eight miles a day. He begins to delight in the nature he sees along the way, and he always manages to find a bed for the night. He keeps in touch with Maureen and Queenie, with postcards and brief phone-calls. Poor Maureen is in a quandary, half wanting to leap in the car and either stop him, half hoping he’ll give up on his own, but incapable of actually doing anything herself.

The thing that keeps Harold going though is the people he meets. From a lovely Slovakian doctor who can only find work in the UK as a cleaner, to a silver-haired gentleman who needs to talk about his rent-boy lover…

He (Harold) understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

Not all his encounters are so benign, and for a while Harold becomes the centre of attention as his cause is picked up by the press. As you might hope and expect however, as Harold continues on his journey, the details of his story are teased out: How he met Maureen and their early days; how he met Queenie, and how she became a special friend to him; and about his son David. What started out as an entertaining and altruistic journey, (which reminded me slightly of Hector and the search for happinessinitially), becomes something much deeper, darker and better as Harold explores himself, and is surprised at what he finds.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of  Harold Fry is an accomplished story, it never descends into mawkishness or sentimentality, although it could have so easily. From the outset, you care about Harold – and Maureen and Queenie for that matter. I needed to hear their stories, and to hear how they ended. I chuckled, I welled up with tears, and I kept turning the pages, needing to read on. (9/10)

Source: Review copy

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday, 2012) Black Swan paperback, 384 pages.

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