"Beyond the window, the sky was a fragile blue, almost breakable, flecked with wisps of cloud, and the treetops were bathed in warm, golden light. Their branches swung in the breeze, beckoning him forward."
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the first novel by actress, radio playwright and author, Rachel Joyce. Queenie Hennessy has terminal cancer. With nothing further to be done, she sends a letter from St Bernadine's Hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed to let Harold Fry, her one-time colleague in Devon, know. Harold, an ordinary man who has always tried hard to be unobtrusive, writes a reply, but on reflection, during his walk to the post-box, deems this insufficient. Wearing yachting shoes, and without telling Maureen, his wife of forty-seven years, he sets off to walk to Berwick-upon-Tweed, a distance of more than five hundred miles, convinced that he can save Queenie by faith alone. Along the way, he encounters the cross-section of society, and is heartened by the kindness of strangers. But he also encounters his own thoughts, fears and regrets. He finds he is no longer able to stop the memories tumbling out of his brain: memories of parents unable to show love, his anxieties with his own son, David, and the events that derailed his marriage ("In walking, he unleashed the past that he had spent twenty years seeking to avoid, and now it chattered and played through his head with a wild energy that was its own."). In his absence, Maureen, too, is plagued by doubts and misgivings. Queenie's letter, it seems, has become a catalyst for change.
As the story progresses, the reader becomes increasingly intrigued as to why, twenty years ago, relations between Harold and Maureen distinctly cooled, Queenie left Devon without saying goodbye and Harold has not seen his son since. Joyce's characters are appealing and multi-dimensional: Harold is immediately likeable despite his many flaws; Maureen starts off stereotypical but reveals hidden depths. Joyce treats the reader to a wealth of beautiful descriptive prose: "...the day fought against night and light seeped into the horizon, so pale it was without colour. Birds burst into song as the distance began to emerge and the day grew more confident; the sky moved through grey, cream, peach, indigo, and into blue. A soft tongue of mist crept the length of the valley floor so that the hilltops and houses seemed to rise out of cloud. Already the moon was a wispy thing" and "Harold lay in his bed, his body so taut with listening he felt that he was more silence than boy" are but two examples.
Similarly, she evokes feelings and mood with wonderful skill: "But sometimes he was afraid that having one son was too much to bear. He wondered if the pain of loving became diluted, the more you had?" and "He felt dulled with such apathy it was like being at the brewery again in the years following Queenie's departure; like being an empty space inside a suit, that said words sometimes and heard them, that got in a car every day and returned home, but was no longer connected up to other people." Her description of Maureen's rearrangement of the wardrobe conveys a poignancy that leaves a lump in the throat. Joyce gives the reader a novel filled with humour and heartache, wit and wisdom. The illustrations by Andrew Davidson at the start of each chapter are charming and the map by John Taylor is a helpful addition. This novel is moving, heart-warming and quite uplifting and readers will look forward to the companion volume, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.show more
by Marianne Vincent