Rachel Joyce may not be a household name to American readers yet, but when The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry hits the bookstores this July, that could change. Joyce, herself a pilgrim of sorts, has journeyed through a twenty year acting career and an award winning stint as a playwright for UK radio and television, and now steps smartly onto the road as a novelist.
Harold Fry, husband and father, is a most ordinary man who, at the age of sixty-five, has just received a brief note of goodbye from a woman he once worked with, a woman he had not seen for twenty years. Queenie Hennesy is dying of cancer and Harold, moved to near-tears, reluctantly recalls why her dying so touches him. He writes a brief, inadequate note, puts it in an envelope and tells his wife he’s off to post the note. His wife asks, “Will you be long?” Unaware that his pilgrimage is about to begin, he answers, “I’m only going to the end of the road.”
For this reviewer, the novel is not so much a Pilgrim’s Progress, as other reviewers have suggested, but more a modern Canterbury Tales, with a hospice care facility 600 miles away in Berwick upon Tweed as a destination rather than Canterbury Cathedral. Fry gathers other pilgrims, some for no more than a brief encounter and others who will, for a period of time, journey with him. From them he learns about believing in that which is beyond belief; that Queenie will live because he is walking to see her.
Fry’s journey takes him to more than cities, rivers, sheds to sleep in or highways to avoid; it takes him inward, to himself, his wife, his son. He is not a great thinker or planner, a man not even up to trading in an old pair of yachting shoes for more appropriate hiking boots. In the weeks it takes him to walk six hundred miles (from Kingsbridge, South Hams to Berwick-upon-Tweed), he sees more than the English countryside for the first time. Fry is a man most comfortable with his anonymity, but that is lost when the story of his journey hits the papers and goes viral on Twitter. Harold Fry no longer walks just to keep Queenie alive; he walks to find his truth, which he must reach before Queenie’s death.
I like to think that every person who reads this novel will become a fellow pilgrim. I’m certain many will recommend Rachel Joyce’s book to others and I suspect that those who follow such recommendations will, at some point in the narrative, stop to think about that person and wonder what part of the story they liked best. Of course it is Harold Fry’s journey, but without giving anything away, it is also my journey, and that of my friend who recommended it, and will be yours by the time you finish reading it. We will all know ourselves and each other a little more than we had before reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. –s.s.