Monday, May 27, 2013

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY – Rachel Joyce

Who doesn't like a good pilgrim story? I do and I have no idea why everyone isn't reading this British import and talking about it. It is delightful. Harold is six months into his retirement living with his long time spouse, Maureen. The times have not been so good for their marriage and it seems they are no longer lovers but co-exist each in their own space and bedrooms, puttering about their daily lives. Their life together seems colorless and mundane. There is no spark or interest. Then Harold gets a letter from a previous co-worker whom he has not seen or heard from for many years. Her name is Queenie Hennessy and she is writing to tell him she is terminally ill and to thank him for being a good friend.

Harold and Maureen live in the south of England and Queenie is in a hospice in the northern most tip of the country. Harold writes Queenie a note and sets out to mail it at the neighborhood post box. However, once at the box he pockets the letter and decides to walk on to the next box. Thus begins Harold's pilgrimage. While delving into deep thoughts about his life, his loves, his family, his decisions, and the world in general Harold makes a pact with himself and Queenie to walk to where she is to say goodbye in person. Of course he must phone home and tell Maureen and he has taken no supplies with him so he depends on the help of others. The whole book is a beautiful story of introspection, loss, love, finding meaning and acquiring wisdom, but also a wonderful look at many unusual pilgrims who come and go on the walk to the North.

On the journey Harold travels back in his memories to dark times as well as the good times, like when he was a boy and his mother abandoned him, “In the morning, her frocks were strewn like empty mothers all over the small house.” He meets so many different people all with their own foibles and cares. He is joined by young and old, some wearing “Pilgrim” t-shirts, some with agendas, some from the press, and one wearing a gorilla suit. But they all come and go and when some decide he is actually a detriment to the “cause” they start their own group!

All through the pilgrimage Harold keeps Maureen informed and she must complete her own mental journey sorting through her feelings so she will be ready when the trek is over to decide with Harold where they should go from here.

Everything about this book is enjoyable, as I have been most of the contemporary British imports I've read. The story was great but the physical book is nice too. The cover is artistically appealing in umbers and ecru with interesting type and bold black illustrations of Harold's shoes (yachting shoes mentioned many times) and a crow (from chapter 12). Even the back has an illustration relevant to the story, the back of a postcard. The chapters begin with small illustrations representative of something coming up. Most of all I loved the pilgrimage map in the back – It took Harold 87 days to go 627 miles.

Let me leave you with this quote from page 107, “He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others.” Ah, accepting the strangeness of others, yes, we all need to do a better job of that.

2 comments:

  1. Great review--you've articulated so much of what I loved about this book.

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  2. Thanks! I talked the local public library book group into using it for August so I will be reading it again and I am looking forward to it.

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