Man Booker Longlist: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices

This is a hard book to review. Not because it is bad. In fact, it is by turns charming, heart-warming, distressing, and profound; a novel of intense regret, grief, great tenderness, faith, and desolation. As Rachel Joyce’s debut novel it is a great achievement and deserves its place on the Man Booker Longlist. It is hard to review – at least as I find it – because the achievement of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is so tightly bound up with the cumulative effect of its various vignettes – the people and places Harold comes across – with the insights and setbacks Harold experiences, some of which seem trite or mere truisms in isolation, but which grow in the telling and in the initially Prufrockish person of Harold himself. Likewise, Joyce’s style is so unobtrusive, not plodding but diligent in its articulation of Harold and his wife’s voices that it threatens to defy analysis.

Harold is a retired and retiring sixty-five year old living in South Devon and with nothing to do. He is intensely insecure, private, wary of attention and emotional engagement.  His difficult childhood and that of his troubled son have hollowed him out, fearing and mishandling emotional connections to others. One day in mid-April, as he sits at the kitchen table, a letter arrives from Queenie Hennessy, a former employee at the misogynist-dominated brewery from which Harold has retired. She is dying of cancer in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold resolves to escape the house and his snappy, impatient, and sarcastic wife, for a while and post her a rather lame reply.

 Harold thought of the words he had written to Queenie, and their inadequacy shamed him. He pictured himself returning home, and Maureen calling David, and life being exactly the same except for Queenie dying in Berwick, and he was overcome. The letter rested on the dark mouth of the post box.

Harold keeps walking, meets a girl in a petrol station who speaks of cancer and faith, and comes to believe he can do something for Queenie, who long ago did something for him. So begins the unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry to Berwick-upon-Tweed: ‘Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.’

Maureen is left alone in Devon to contemplate a life without Harold, from whom she has become so estranged. ‘She thought of their cold beds, in separate rooms, and the words they shared, which skimmed the surface and meant nothing.’ Since their son left them, Harold and Maureen have come to be coincidental occupiers of the same house, unable to bridge the gap between them. As in Larkin’s poem Talking in Bed ‘more and more time passes silently’, so

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words and once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

I was recently reminded by Charles Fernyhough of a line from Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude ‘Memory: the space in which a thing happens for the second time.’ As he walks Harold’s memories, of his son, his wife, his absent mother and unsatisfactory father, and Queenie, assail him, deepening his despair and losing nothing in their recollection, but rather intensifying as though thickened by time and the impotence of distance.

Later in the same book Auster quotes Hölderlin who, before his first mental breakdown, undertook his own three-month walk from Bordeaux to Stuttgart across the Massif Central in 1802. Following the death of his wife, he spent thirty-six years in a room in a tower, built for him by a carpenter called Zimmer (which means room in German). Like Hölderlin Harold seems to have lived in one stuffy compartment of his life. And yet,


The lines of life are various as roads or as

The limits of the mountains are, and what we are

Down here, in harmonies, in recompense,

In peace forever, a god will finish there.

The heart of this book is the walk, the journey along the lines of life begun by Harold as he finally steps away in his yachting shoes from his staid life, only to find himself walking through it, seeing everything around him in terms of it his memories, regrets, optimism, or despair. Throughout Joyce summons parallels between the weather and Harold’s state of mind. The landscape of Britain becomes the geography of his life, the people and places, flora and fauna, the moments of joy when all around appears radiant, and the moments of desolation and utter isolation, which are themselves intensified by Harold and Maureen’s inability to communicate. There are moments where the story can strike one as repetitive, punctuated as it is by many moments of despair and subsequent new beginnings; but then such a journey is repetitive – will involve returning to thoughts, moments, memories. Some images can feel a little contrived, but occasionally they really hit home.

He looked out at the rain, waiting for it to break, and saw a crow with its head bowed, its feathers so wet they shone like tar. He wished the bird would move, but it sat sodden and alone. Maureen was so busy she had hardly noticed Harold had gone.

What rescues Harold’s insights from apparent triviality is their place in the context of his stunted emotional development. He meets an apparently prosperous gentleman in a railway café, and yet,

He was a chap like himself with a unique pain; and yet there was no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a café and did not share his teacake…It must be the same all over England.

This line might feel, perhaps does feel somewhat underwhelming, but Harold has never felt such things before, and this realisation, reinforced with each person he meets, leads to the heart of Joyce’s novel.

He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

And thus, as in Pilgrim’s Progress so in Harold Fry atonement integrates both the journey and its telling. At-one-ment: the return to a state of harmony, an act of reconciliation and reparation for past wrongs. The dark heart of this book questions the meaning and possibility of such things for Harold very effectively through the lens of his troubled relationship with his difficult son; but, at the same time Joyce questions the limits of our responsibility for others’ choices, a weight that surely all parents feel. She does so very well indeed and marshals the turbulence, love, fear, doubt, and faith of a life with originality in that most frequent of metaphors, the journey.

7 thoughts on “Man Booker Longlist: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

  1. Pingback: Durham Book Festival Launch | wordsofmercury

  2. Heart warming and profound, not for me then I think. It sounds, well, a bit neat (as I just commented at themookseandthegripes).

    I note that ultimately you like it. Do you think it should get through to the shortlist, accepting I admit that you haven’t had a chance yet to read most of the longlist?

    The impotence of distance is by the way a great phrase.

    • I think it’s less neat than the review suggests actually. The end makes it, but I can’t really talk about that. I think it’s good, but one has to come to it in the right way. A lot of the criticism of it has, I think, been from people whose literary tastes are attuned to progressive writers. That’s not what this book is about. It’s much simpler than that, and yet much more complicated. Oh dear, that doesn’t make sense. As Joyce said at the event I was at tonight, she’s interested in ordinary people being human.

      As to the shortlist, I’m not sure. I suspect not, but we’ll see. There are more bookerish novels on the longlist than this. My early tips are Bring Up the Bodies and Swimming Home, but that could change.

      Oh, and thank you. I’m rather proud of it.

  3. I enjoyed this book, but hadn’t thought to compare it to Pilgrim’s Progress. Rather, I thought it was a bit similar to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as various sections of the walk occasioned another story about Harold as seen through some circumstance at work or home, or through interaction with the people he meets on his walk who act as catalysts on him. When the press catches on to his story, and others join the pilgrimage, he appears to be rather Christ-like, but doesn’t rise to the occasion.
    I find much to admire in the way Rachel Joyce keeps significant facts concealed from the reader which are gradually unveiled. I’d like to see this make the shortlist but somehow don’t see it as the ultimate winner.

  4. Pingback: Durham Book Festival 2012 Launch with Rachel Joyce | wordsofmercury

  5. I agree, a very hard book to review but I think you’ve captured the essence of it really well . Ordinary in many ways, yet extraordinary in others .

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