The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

The characters and events in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry are indeed unlikely: Harold makes a spontaneous decision to walk the length of England in yachting shoes to keep his old friend Queenie alive. He gradually abandons structure and convention as the journey progresses—finally paying no attention to night or day or weather or food or where he sleeps. He is utterly shocked at the grotesque deathbed disfigurement that has come from Queenie’s waiting for him. None of these things seem quite realistic or likely, yet the overall story comes to feels universally true and important.

At the beginning, we meet Harold and Maureen: “Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbor’s stockade fencing.” Maureen is cleaning, which she does a lot. She likes her toast cold and crisp. And she is dismissive of everything Harold says and does.

Immediately, Queenie’s letter arrives with the news that she is dying, and before long Harold is off on his unlikely pilgrimage to hand carry his inchoate written response to her news, believing that the long journey will delay her death.

At first, Harold and Maureen feel pathetic in their dysfunction—like characters only the author could love. But as they open up to the reader (but not to each other), they begin to feel like survivors who may deserve our understanding, instead of victims who need our pity. As the revelations land, we learn of parental abandonment and indifference. Of a brilliant, but troubled, addicted son who hangs himself.

A universal story begins to unfold of childhood tenderness and trauma, of young adulthood with its peaks and perils. If we’re lucky, true love strikes and makes us dance crazy. But even then, our past nags at our present. Shortcomings show themselves. Mistakes are made, hearts are broken, memories are wrenched into false truths. We blame, we feel guilty. We ache. We mourn. We deny.

Harold’s pilgrimage on a narrative level is about keeping Queenie in this world as long as possible, but his real pilgrimage is to fall in love with Maureen again, and have her fall in love with him again. And for them to share good, true memories of their son who, like everyone, ultimately made his own choices.

At the end, when Harold and Maureen are leaving the nuns after Queenie’s funeral, they find themselves laughing about something one of them said at their first meeting. What was said isn’t shared with the reader. It’s just their memory, which enhances the new sense of intimacy between them. “They caught hands again, and walked toward the water’s edge, two small figures against the black waves. Only half way there, one of them must have remembered again and it passed like a fresh current of joy between them. They stood at the water’s edge, not letting go, and rocked with laughter.”

— Sharelle Moranville

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