A Journey of Self Rediscovery

Ah. Journeys. We live lives that are brimming with journeys. While life itself is one big journey, it is intersected with several other journeys. Going through the educational system is a ubiquitous journey. Falling in love is also a journey. Without a doubt, our lives are filled with journeys. Some of these journeys are big and play a seminal role in molding our character and in making us appreciate everything that surrounds us, even the most minute of things. These are impactful journeys. There are also inconsequential journeys. These are fleeting but they still space in our treasure trove of memories for, even just a single time in our lives, they made us feel something we normally don’t. These journeys leave indelible marks on our DNAs.

Every once in a while, life throws us curveballs. They are unavoidable and they are inevitable. There is nothing left for us to do but to let ourselves be hit. As unwilling participants, we occasionally find ourselves in the midst of a journey, or a pilgrimage even. These seem like detours, journeys we never planned for nor intended to partake of. It does not help that they come at the most inopportune of times. Such was the folly of life and fate. Nevertheless, we find ourselves absorbed by the journey. We ditch everything as we slowly find ourselves deeply invested in this journey. This was the case for Harold Fry, the hero in British writer Rachel Joyce’s debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

“The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings.” Thus commenced Harold’s titular pilgrimage. When the readers first meet the book’s hero, he was already in his mid-sixties. He and his wife Maureen were living in Kingsbridge on the south coast of Devon. It was while he was cutting the lawn outside of their home when he received the letter. It was sent by Queenie Hennessy, an acquaintance, and a former colleague. However, since leaving the company they both worked in over two decades ago, Harold has never heard from Queenie until that fateful day. This was why the letter he received out of the blue was totally unexpected and came out as a surprise. But was it a pleasant surprise? What does the letter contain that it had the power to change everything? Everything as Harold and Maureen has always seen them?

“Beginnings could happen more than once or in different ways. You could think you were starting something afresh, when actually what you were doing was carrying on as before. He had faced his shortcomings and overcome them and so the real business of walking was happening only now.”

~ Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Unfortunately, the letter contained harrowing news. Queenie was struggling against cancer. The diagnosis was anything but bad and her doctors were none too enthusiastic. Her case was, sadly, terminal. For the remainder of her time, she has been staying in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Without any more ado, Harold set out on his unlikely pilgrimage to Queenie’s hospice, 627 miles north of his home near the English Channel. This meant a journey by foot through the entire length of England. He had nothing on him but the clothes he was wearing. He had neither walking boots nor a compass. He only had one thing on his mind: to keep Queenie alive.

The first question that crosses one’s mind would be: who is Queenie? What role did she play in Harold’s life that the unexpected news elicited such a strong reaction from Harold? As the story moved forward, and as Harold moved forward in his journey, the novel flashed back to the past to weave the backstory; this is a common device in stories with similar plot structures. In this manner, the novel was a rumination about his life, his marriage, and his former employment as a brewery representative where he first met Queenie. Through Harold’s reflections, we learn that his marriage with has been stale for some time. The marriage felt like walking on a tightrope, a balancing act in midair with no safety net underneath. Their marriage life has drastically changed and it reached a juncture where Harold thought of his wife as “a wall that you expected to be there, even if you didn’t often look at it.”

So did Harold have an affair with Queenie? It was one of the logical explanations for his hasty actions. For sure it wasn’t born out of a whim to simply keep Queenie alive. Maureen who was also mystified by Harold’s hasty actions can only arrive at the same conclusion. She was hurt but refused to admit it to him. All throughout his 87-day journey, Harold constantly dropped calls and sent postcards to his wife. Nevertheless, Maureen’s embarrassment grew as soon as Harold’s pilgrimage caught the attention and interest of the public, including the media. Harold was oblivious to the attention as he was vehemently trudging forward to his goal. At one point, Maureen began to believe that it was Queenie who was the source of their marital woe and created the chasm between her and her husband.

As both Harold and Maureen reflect on their marriage in alternating chapters, we read about the struggles of married life. There were good days and there were also bad days. We read about their hopes but also about their individual regrets. We read about the things they wanted to change, points in the past that they want to go back to. But those are all water under the bridge. As they would both realize, marriage takes two to tango. It is a joint endeavor but it hasn’t been that way for the longest time. For marriage to work out, constant communication is a must, as they would both realize at the end of the journey. It also means being there for each other during the bad days, not only during the days the sun is shining brightly above the cerulean sky.

“He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, 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.”

~ Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

A seminal part of Harold’s reflections on the past revolved around their son, David, with whom he was long estranged. He was a shadow that cast a pall over the story. Both his parents loved him and ensured to raise him in a caring and loving environment. It was also during this period that his parents were the most affectionate to each other. We read about his childhood and his young adulthood. He was a smart child but he was also some sort of an enigma, especially to his father with whom he rarely spoke to. His story was another puzzle that keeps the readers riveted but his strand remained mostly in the background for the most part. How do these individual strands, which seemingly have diverged, converge?

Like our own experiences, it is through life journeys that we gain better perspectives. For Harold, his unlikely pilgrimage made him gain a better perspective on life. The mere act of stepping out of his comfort zone was one. These first steps resulted in a domino effect. The seemingly mundane started to take more meaningful shapes. What was once ordinary comes alive. Harold was starting to see life from a different vantage point. He allowed his marital woes to hold him back and this new pilgrimage made him see the beauty that surrounded him. Beyond his unhappy and suffocating home is a world waiting to be discovered. His journey also made him discover more things about himself. Along the way, he came across an eclectic and interesting set of characters; some would leave lasting impressions while some were fleeting.

The first two-thirds of the book felt familiar. The structure and the theme around which it was built seemed predictable. It felt trope-ish and the direction in which Joyce was steering it was clear as a day. But just when you feel confident about the story, Joyce intercuts it with a plot twist that would realign the story. This realignment would subvert the adventure story in a more emotional and sentimental direction. With the appearance of a second letter, the lighthearted humor was replaced by a heavier and darker veil as the story expounded its exploration of existentialism, abandonment – both physical and emotional – and mental health awareness. It also shed a light on the decisions we make and the consequences of these decisions on our lives.

Meanwhile, the story was headed toward another inevitable collision course. Harold’s journey was slowly approaching its penultimate destination, and reality was sinking in. The dust was starting to settle. Eighty-seven days after he started his journey, and after walking 627 miles only in his yachting shoes, Harold finally reached the hospice where Queenie has been waiting for him. To the readers, it was also a high point as Queenie has been personified, no longer a figment of the imagination perceived primarily through Harold’s memory. But it was not the ending that he envisioned it to be. Queenie was a shadow of herself. She can no longer speak and her memory was often clouded. It was at this moment that Harold came to terms with the inevitability of death. We are but mere mortals and our time on this earth is nothing but temporary.

“He had learned that 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.”

~ Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The novel’s most powerful messages and storytelling were reserved in the concluding pages of the novel. The cumulative impact of Harold’s various adventures, misadventures, and detours started to manifest. It was a eureka moment that took time to develop but once it did, it was pulsating. Although it did take him down the road less taken, the journey breathed new life into Harold. It was a transformational journey that ended with Harold finally seeing the place Maureen holds in his life. Maureen had a similar journey of rediscovery. While the last couple of years has certainly been tumultuous, there still was a spark that only needed to be rekindled. Sometimes it takes an 87-day journey to remind us to appreciate the beauty of the simple things.

“They caught hands again, and walked towards the water’s edge, two small figures against the black waves. Only halfway there, one of them must have remembered again and it passed like a fresh current of joy between them. They stood at the water’s edge, not letting go, and rocked with laughter.

Before being developed into a full-length novel, the story was originally written in the form of a short radio play. It was broadcasted on BBC Radio 4. It also was inspired by her father who, like the story’s Queenie, was fighting against cancer; his case was also terminal. But before the radio play could be aired, he, unfortunately, passed away. The radio play’s novel adaptation, nevertheless, was an astounding critical and commercial success. It earned Joyce several literary awards. It was also longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. For Joyce, it was a kind of coming-of-full circle as she realized a lifelong dream.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry did take time to blossom into a stellar literary piece. But once it did, it did not hold back. What seemed like a whimsical action by an hexagenarian developed into a sentimental journey that made him appreciate and understand life better and deeper. Through Harold, Joyce was reminding her readers about the beauty of the ordinary but one also must be willing to step out of one’s comfort zone to see and appreciate the beauty that lies beyond. Adventures aside, the novel grappled with deeply personal themes such as marital woes, mental health awareness, our mortality, and the inevitability of death. It snowballed into a sentimentally but silently powerful tale about life, its beauties, and its ugliness. Living, after all, entails taking the bad along with the good.

Rating

75%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
21%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

It was in 2018, I believe when I first encountered Rachel Joyce and her novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Honestly, I wasn’t all too keen on the book for I found the title a little too puerile for my taste. I find it also a little on the whimsical side. But after several encounters with the book, I finally relented and obtained a copy of the book, notwithstanding the fact that I had no iota about what the book was about nor have I read any of Joyce’s other works before. Oh well, the inner adventure in me has taken over. Unfortunately, the book was left to gather dust on my bookshelf, prompting me to add it to my 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge. Four years after I obtained the book, I finally was able to read it. I wasn’t really feeling the story. At first. I felt it was a little cliche, a book and story I have read before, maybe along the lines of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. But just when I thought I knew how the story was going to develop, Joyce throws in the biggest surprise nearly two-thirds into the story. That was when everything started to make sense. The seemingly light suddenly turned serious. I was actually a little emotional at this point. It changed the complexion of the story and of how I understand Harold and Maureen’s dynamics. The ending was indeed predictable but the power behind the book’s message about redemption and acquiring fresh perspectives cannot be denied

Book Specs

Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Doubleday
Publishing Date: 2012
Number of Pages: 296
Genre: Adventure, Literary

Synopsis

When Harold Fry leaves home one morning to post a letter, with his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other.

He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone.

All he knows is that he must keep walking.

To save someone else’s life.

About the Author

Rachel Joyce was born in 1962 in South East London, United Kingdom, with an architect for a father and a teacher for a mother. She and her sisters’ interest in reading were encouraged at a young age. They read the works of Beatrix Potter, Noel Streatfeild, and Joan Aiken. Joyce has always been interested in writing and her ambition to be a writer prospered when she was 14 years old. It was around this age that she secretly sent a story to a publisher using a pseudonym, Mary Thornton.

Joyce studied English at Bristol University. Post-university, she took on a variety of jobs. She worked as a nanny for a brief period before she trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). For over two decades, she worked as a theatre actress, playing lead roles with the RSC, Royal National Theatre, Royal Court, Cheek by Jowl, and other provincial theatres. While pregnant for the first time, Joyce made her first move into a literary career. She then wrote plays for BBC Radio 4. She also wrote major adaptations of all the Bronte novels and Henry James. In 2007, she jointly won the Tinniswood Award for her radio play To Be a Pilgrim.

Her long-awaited debut into full prose materialized in 2012 when her first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was published to resounding critical success. It was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and long-listed for the Booker Prize. Rachel has been awarded the Specsavers New Writer of the Year National Book Award and shortlisted for the UK author of the year. Joyce followed up her successful debut with Perfect (2013), The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2014), The Music Shop (2017), and Miss Benson’s Beetle (2020). The latter was the winner of the 2021 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. Her latest novel, Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North, was published in 2022. She has also published a collection of interlinked short stories, A Snow Garden & Other Stories in 2015. 

Joyce is married to actor Paul Venables and lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and four children.