Friday, August 17, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Harold Fry did not plan to make a pilgrimage when he first stepped out of his house to mail a letter to an old friend, but an actual pilgrimage (a journey for exalted or sentimental reasons) is exactly what his errand turned into. Harold is a mild-mannered, recently retired Englishman who has only ever walked to his car. He and his wife Maureen share a spotlessly clean home and loveless marriage. When Harold receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie, informing him she is in hospice care dying of cancer, he writes a simple letter of condolence. Mulling over his relationship with Queenie as he passes mailbox after mailbox, he finally decides he must see her and convinces himself she will not die as long as he continues to walk. So, without proper shoes or socks, without a change of clothes, without a map or compass, without his cell phone and without returning home to inform his wife of his plans, he sets out to walk five hundred miles to the hospice. At first he is exhilarated by nature and the physical act of walking. Later, bad weather and blisters and sore muscles turn his exhilaration into misery. Yet he persists. While he walks, he recalls his life in small disjointed bits and we come to understand his difficult relationships with his family and his devotion to his dying friend.  Meanwhile, the bewildered Maureen, receiving only an occasional phone call or postcard from her meandering husband, considers the state of her marriage. Will absence make the heart grow fonder, or will Harold’s pilgrimage be the last straw in the burden of regret and recrimination that has plagued their lives for twenty years? The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, long-listed for the prestigious 2012 Booker Prize, is a book for all who enjoy well-drawn characters and unexpected plot twists.