Monday, July 22, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

This is a delightful book, wittily and sharply written, and also full of humanity. It's the story of a retired man who, while at breakfast one morning, receives an unexpected letter from an old friend. Before the day is over he has decided to walk from the South of England to the North, in order to 'save' her from the cancer she has. His harridan of a wife is naturally puzzled by his sudden change of character, and is angrier at him than ever.  However, nothing in this book is as it seems at first, and gradually we discover that there are secrets we've not been party to early in the story that change our views of the two main characters, Harold and Maureen.  
 This could have been just a 'road' story, but Rachel Joyce makes it much more than that by gradually unpeeling the backgrounds of her characters' story. It's also a novel full of faith and hope and charity and forgiveness, even though the two main characters more than once claim not to be ‘religious.’ I’m not sure why this needs to be said: at the end of the book, Harold, who has by then walked hundreds of miles to ‘save’ his old - and long-lost - friend, Queenie, finds her dying in a hospice run by nuns, and the nuns are presented as warm and loving, not as caricatures as is so often the case in modern novels.
The book is perhaps more humanist in tone than religious: it has a basic feeling of the good that’s in humanity, even though some characters are either well off the rails (certainly at the beginning) or get right for a while and then go off again.  But the people Harold meets on pilgrimage, for the most part, are helpful and giving, without requiring anything of him.  And he learns to live with less and less as he goes on, because he knows that there will be people willing to provide for him.
It’s a complicated book – Joyce isn't however trying to say that everyone is good, and the world is all as it should be. Harold only proceeds with his journey because of an exaggeration a young and somewhat disinterested woman in the local garage tells him. Perhaps it's even a lie. We learn over time that neither Harold nor Maureen are entirely truth-tellers; their lies are hidden from us, the readers, and only gradually revealed. Furthermore, they haven’t acknowledged these lies to each other over more than twenty years, nor asked for forgiveness.  Neither of these characters are ‘saints’ so it’s not surprising they don’t call themselves ‘religious’, but the reader is certainly in sympathy with them. As we learn more and more about the crisis that precipitated the downfall of their marriage, we realise that Maureen, who starts out in the story as an absolute horror to live with, has never acknowledged that it’s not her husband’s fault that she’s the way she is, even though she’s blamed him. When she starts admitting the truth she begins to change, though not overnight.  
 Is ‘Queenie’ a saint, like those saints of old whose shrines people made pilgrimages to?  We never learn more than what Harold tells us. Given the nature of the other characters, it’s probably unlikely that she's a saint in any sense, but we do learn that she's had courage to stand up in the past to the only real 'villain' in the story. 
There's a sense of 'cleanliness' about this book.  In spite of the behaviour of the main characters towards each other, neither has ever been unfaithful in their marriage. This may be surprising given what we learn about the nature of Harold's upbringing, and the seeming designs the widower next door might have on Maureen.  But it makes a refreshing change: so many novels rely on characters committing adultery as an excuse for crisis or action.
Joyce is about to publish her second novel.  I'm pretty sure I'll be reading it!
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