I belong to several Facebook groups dedicated to the Camino de Santiago. From time to time people recommend various books, usually guides or memoirs. One day someone recommended a novel, the first by author Rachel Joyce called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. She promised it captured many of the experiences of the Camino plus it was a great story. She was right!
Here’s what the publisher has to say about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry:
Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.
Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.
Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.
And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.
A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller.
This was a fantastic story. You don’t have to have walked a pilgrimage to understand what Harold is experiencing as he walks the length of England. It captures perfectly the physical struggles of the body as it adapts to the journey as well as the internal struggle in learning to cope with your thoughts when they’re your only company. Harold finds support among friendly strangers and in turn finds himself helping others in need of a quiet word, a drink of water or just a companion to walk with. Maureen finds herself on her own journey, even though she doesn’t leave their home.
Bit by bit, Rachel Joyce reveals the secret behind Harold’s desire to say goodbye to Queenie Hennessy in person and why he and Maureen have grown apart over the years. Once I got into the meat of the story I found it hard to put down. It’s difficult to follow Harold’s transformation and not find similar parallels in our own lives. There are books that stay with you long after you turn the last page. This is one.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was originally published in 2012 and is available for Kindle, audio book or print. Rachel Joyce has since written a few more novels and has published several short stories. I look forward to reading my way through her works.