Tag Archives: Man Booker Longlist

Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

13th August 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Random House in coordination with TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

From the back cover:

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 there 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. 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 Hennessy will live.

Ahh, Harold Fry. Perfectly British, the novel made the Man Booker longlist, quite a feat for a debut novelist. And though everyone I can possibly think of loved this novel…I did not.

The writing is good. Harold Fry, admirable. His painful past is lamentable and is introduced in well-paced revelations. However, even with all that, I did not quite like Harold Fry because I felt I did not really know him. Granted, this sounds odd as I just told you his past is revealed and his character honorable. But instead of feeling a kinship with Harold, I felt increasingly distanced from him as his observations bordered on kitschy needlepoint pillow fare:

He had learned it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.

Quite right, Harold, and there are easily two dozen pins on Pinterest which say virtually the same thing, as does Joyce here, in another passage:

It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday.

Notice, I subconsciously introduced this quote by mentioning Joyce, and I think that is my biggest stumbling block: it didn’t feel as though Harold were making these observations but rather that Joyce was so inserted into the novel that I was being told how Joyce thought I should think Harold felt. If that makes sense.

In the first half of the book, these observations were touching, and there are several truly humbling moments when people open up to Harold and tell him about themselves in poignant ways; however, by the time the reader learns just what Harold has kept pent up within himself, these run-ins seem trite and forced, much like the group who, mainly for selfish reasons, decides to follow Harold in his pilgrimage. In other words, I wish Joyce had simply shown me these things instead of told me again and again.

However, this is quite possibly a case where I’m being much too cynical because, as I mentioned, many of those whose opinions I respect really enjoyed this book, as did most of the people on Goodreads [add it to your shelf if you like]. In fact, after finishing the book, I will say I had to really question myself: Am I unused to this kind of sacrifice and faith? Have I reached the point where sentiment seems manipulative? If so, what does that say about me?

I’m not sure I like the answers, and that, in and of itself, makes The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry an interesting read.

Check out others’ opinions on the book through TLC Book Tours.