“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”: A Review

Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry tells an intriguing tale of one man’s compelling need to perform an act of kindness in the world. At the onset of the novel, we learn that Harold Fry, a sixty-five year old Devon retiree from a brewery, has been living a life of quiet desperation for many, many years. He lacks purpose and intimacy in his life.

Then, out of the clear blue sky, Harold receives a letter from a former brewery co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, informing him that she has terminal cancer and is in a hospice located in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold, at first, responds with a letter of reply to Queenie extending his best wishes. It turns out that Queenie was exceptionally kind to Harold in the past, and somehow he feels that a letter is a rather weak gesture of response to the serious condition of his erstwhile colleague and friend.

Harold, while still contemplating whether or not to post the letter to Queenie, stops into a petrol station to buy a sandwich. Harold mentions Queenie’s condition with the garage girl behind the counter. The garage girl relates a story about her aunt who miraculously survives her apparent terminal cancer. She tells him: “You have to believe. That’s what I think. It’s not about medicine and all that stuff. You have to believe a person can get better. There is so much in the human mind we don’t understand. But, you see, if you have faith, you can do anything.”

These words are Harold’s epiphany. He vows to walk from his home in Kingsbridge, in far southwestern England, to Queenie’s hospice in the far corner of northeastern England. Harold is transformed into a pilgrim whose mission is to walk to Berwick-upon-Tweed, so that Queenie can continue to live.

This is unlikely pilgrimage. Memories of his hurtful past are dredged up on the pilgrimage as his inner monologue ultimately gives him the strength and will to break the emotional impasse that caused so much pain for him over the years. Harold reawakens his sense of discovery and observation of people and things as he progresses on his pilgrimage. He learns to overcome his great loss, finding redemption in the end.

Ms. Joyce has done well for herself in this debut novel. It is a major literary achievement to make the Man Booker Prize longlist. I thank her for this inspiring novel.

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“Skios”: A Review

Skios is Michael Frayn’s entry for the Man Booker Prize this year. Frayn, a septuagenarian British Renaissance Man (he is the premier translator of Chekhov’s plays in the UK), has carefully crafted a novel of mistaken identity at the Fred Toppler Foundation’s annual Great European House Party on the remote Greek island of Skios. The book is hilarious.

Oscar Wilde himself would be proud in the way Frayn concocts a plot where the roguish Oliver Fox assumes the identity of scholar, Dr. Norman Wilfred, the event’s keynote speaker. This occurs despite Fox’s handsome, thirtyish features, punctuated by a mop of very blond hair, while Dr. Wilfred is balding, frumpish, and fiftyish.

The sly Fox charms and mesmerizes an interesting array of supporting female characters. These include Nikki, the event creator, Mrs. Fred Toppler, a former American strip tease artist whose inherited wealth funds this Greek shindig, and the enigmatic Mrs. Skorbatova, the wife of a Russian mobster.

Although Skios is a delightfully entertaining read, I think that perhaps it is better suited for either film or television, media in which Mr. Frayn has considerable experience. I can just see Owen Wilson playing the role of Oliver Fox!

High on Shuklaji Street

Jeet Thayil’s debut novel, Narcopolis, takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster ride of Bombay’s red light, drug-dealing Shuklaji Street in the 1970s. The narrator is Dom Ullis, a Christian from Kerala, immersed at one-time in the hard drug culture scene of Bombay (now Mumbai), and a biography that closely emulates that of the author. Thayil is an accomplished poet and musician, and the words of his novel establish a beat, a pulsating rhythm that guides the narrative from start to finish.

Most of the action takes place in Rashid’s drug den on Shuklaji Street. Opium, cocaine and heroin are used by the regulars that include Ullis, the eunuch, turned prostitute, Dimple, and Salim, a daytime watch store clerk, who turns into a gangster’s thug at night. There is also an interesting side story relating the history of Mr. Lee, a Chinese man residing in Bombay and who is a user at Rashid’s. Mr. Lee’s story brings us into the throes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, an expansive historical event which is juxtaposed nicely with the “sit around, get stoned” culture of Rashid’s rooms on Shuklaji Street.

This is not an easy book to read, but if you can make out the multitude of Indian street terms through context, and not be turned off by jolting sexual and drug descriptive narrative, the literary journey is well worth the ride. Thayil’s characterization is amazing, and his story-telling skills are finely crafted. I believe that Narcopolis has a decent chance to land on the Man Booker Prize shortlist this September.