“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.