“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” by first-time novelist and nominee for this year’s Man Booker prize, Rachel Joyce, is a story about doing the impossible.
Harold Fry and his wife, Maureen, are retired and live in the small English village of Kingsbridge. They follow their same day-to-day, stale, separate routines. Harold is a man who has never done the unexpected in all his 65 years. A retired brewery salesman, he receives a letter from a dear friend that he has not seen or heard from in 20 years, Queenie Hennessy, who is dying of cancer in a hospice 600 miles away and is writing to say goodbye.
Harold is stunned. Queenie is a friend who had done him a great favor two decades before. There is so much he never said to her or even thanked her for the favor. Harold doesn’t know how to respond to Queenie as her letter brings back so many memories. Finally he writes a few words and sets off to post his reply. When he reaches the first mailbox he is not ready to let go of his letter, so he walks on to the next mailbox. On the way, he decides impulsively to walk to Queenie’s town and say goodbye in person. One of his chance encounters along the way is with a girl who inspires him with her story of saving someone from cancer through faith. Harold decides that if he walks the 600 plus miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick upon Tweed, where his friend is dying, Queenie will live.
Along the way Harold reflects on his relationships with his wife and a son who talks only to his mother. Harold has painful memories of his own mother who abandoned him. He remembers how happy he and Maureen once were and how much he loves his son. Harold talks to the people he meets along the way, hearing their stories and telling his own. As Harold makes this pilgrimage, he becomes aware of things he had never noticed before and begins to appreciate how much he has missed outside the confines of his small village. Somewhere along the way, the act of walking becomes an act of faith, a journey for Harold to find himself.
This novel is humorous, reflective, sentimental and inspiring. It is also a story about regret and the ways in which our lives can drift away from us.