“The least planned part of the journey, however, was the journey itself.”
― Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
Rating – 3 stars.
What would be your reaction on learning that a 65 year old man has gone out for a walk, nothing much. Then you learn the walk is unintended, just a spur of the moment thing. You still wouldn’t consider giving it a second thought, shrug your shoulders and may be say stop annoying me with such useless crap.
But what if you learn that same man has planned a journey of over 600 miles without a second’ thought? You might be mildly interested. On asking the reason to this expansive long walk, if you get an answer – that the journey is meant to deliver a letter to an old friend personally, you might laugh thinking its a joke or that the old man has perhaps lost his marbles. However nothing can be further away from the truth here.
Harold Fry is a retired man who spends his days, all dressed up, tie included and just sits in his house with nowhere to go. His only companion is his wife Maureen, who comes across as a pissed off, bitter housewife and an awful nag. Even as she is scrubbing, cleaning, vacuuming she doesn’t fail to nag Harold as she keeps on venting her frustrations, one thing after another, all the time.
Then one day a letter arrives and everything changes.
Harold learns his old colleague and friend Queenie Hennessy is in a hospice and dying of cancer. She is terminal and will not make it, and in her last days she remembered him and sent him a letter. A woman he lost contact with 20 years ago. A woman he has felt indebted to for as long, a woman he should have thanked and apologized to, all those years ago but could not and did not.
Learning Queenie is nearing her end, Harold is moved to tears and wishes to say all those things to her which he should have at the time when she chose to disappear from his life. So he writes a letter and finds its insufficient, and moves on to the next. Thinking he would drop it off at the nearest post box Harold sets off from his home, only to make a resolve to hand-deliver the note personally to Queenie and walk all those miles that stand between them.
He neither returns to his home, nor purchases any supplies, any gear, anything for the journey. Instead he starts walking wearing his yachting shoes, with only the clothes on his back and his wallet and cards on him. No mobile, nothing else.
Once he begins his walk and has traveled a considerable distance, given his age, he calls his wife and informs her of his decision. She dismisses him and feels Harold is not upto the challenge and will be back in no time and says the same to him. On his journey with his progress Harold meets many strangers and slowly with each encounter, a layer of his life is peeled back. We learn how he met Maureen and it was love at first sight for both of them, their courtship, subsequent marriage and the birth of their only child David as well as Harold’ parents and their unhappy marriage. His father’ slow descent into depression with PTSD and his alcoholism as well as his final days as a patient with Alzheimer’s and about his mother’ abandonment of Harold and his father before his 13th birthday; which results in the numerous casual affairs and one night stands his father has.
All of this leaves an indelible mark on Harold & his personality. Despite being a loving person, he finds it difficult to express his love or rather finds it difficult to let people know he cares about them, loves them.
Maureen who initially swore to herself that she would love Harold with all her heart and be there for him all his life too, in a way abandons him owing to an incident that is a huge blow to Harold and Maureen personally and to their marriage as well.
For the past twenty years Maureen has not shared Harold’ bed or been loving towards him in anyway. They have been polite, they have been angry, they have been shattered, they have been distant.
Harold’ walk finally thaws the coldness that become a part of their marriage, as Maureen starts missing him. Finally in letting go of the one grudge, the one constant pain that tore them apart, Maureen comes to love her husband once again, as she did as a girl in her twenties. After twenty years of maintaining a distance despite staying under the same roof, Maureen begins to wonder if she wronged Harold, and begins craving for the intimacy she wishes she hadn’t given up.
As people begin hearing of Harold, they think his walk is a pilgrimage, one that is meant for a woman he is in love with; which isn’t the case here.
Maureen is the only woman Harold has ever loved but with Queenie, he shares a friendship, a bond that means a great deal to him. When she began her works in the account department at the brewery where Harold worked, Queenie was mocked, ridiculed and tormented a lot, since in those days it was unusual for a woman to be employed in a position of authority of any kind. A mild-mannered Harold is entrusted with the job of ensuring her safety as Queenie makes her rounds at the pubs. It’s while traveling these two become friends, since in a place which she couldn’t quit and where she was unhappy, in an unguarded moment Queenie is shown a kindness by Harold.
It is this kindness and friendship that leads Queenie to accept the responsibility of an act committed by Harold despite being innocent.
Harold Fry has committed only two acts in his life that can be said are uncharacteristic of him. The walk is the second, the first incident leads to Queenie being fired and simply vanishing from his life.
The walk is inspired as an act of faith on Harold’ part but it’ effect reaches far-off, to an amount of ridiculous proportion to say the least.
What started off as one man’ impromptu journey gains momentum when Harold accidentally narrates the story of his walk to a journo and becomes a small-time celebrity in his own right. People come and join him on his walk and while not everyone has motives there are jerks, and it is at this point that I was really annoyed with the novel.
Had it not had this one little part and perhaps a fewer instances where the phrase ‘one foot in front of another’, I would have been a happy reader.
Harold doesn’t really see himself as a pilgrim, but nonetheless his walk is an unusual pilgrimage. One on which he embarks so as to be able to forgive himself for not standing up to accept his own actions which cause Queenie’ downfall, for not doing perhaps everything he should have for his son and lastly for inflicting upon his wife a pain so terrible it robs the woman he loved of herself, her existence in a huge way.
He did everything he could in his life to the best of his abilities, but it is while being on this walk that he realizes that maybe, just maybe he could have and should have done more. All the while as his wife finally comes to terms with their loss, their issues and understands that perhaps Harold was not to be blamed. Not completely. Perhaps she too played a part in what went wrong, albeit unwittingly.
Rachel Joyce has crafted a wonderful tale of regrets, second chances and coming to terms with a loss in her debut novel, and while I do have my complaints, I find this a beautiful book that deserves to be read at least once by people who love stories that have a streak of realism in them.