Available from Penguin Random House.
When Harold Fry, a nondescript, recently retired man living in Devon, receives a letter from his former colleague, Queenie Hennessey, telling him that she is dying in a hospice in Berwick, he composes a brief reply and sets off to the letter box to post it – only he walks past several letter boxes and decides to walk all the way to Berwick, in a pair of yachting shoes and without his mobile phone. As you do. The novel chronicles his journey, the people he meets on his way, his thoughts about his wife and son, his childhood and the job he has just left. The plot is quirky, involving a lot of suspension of belief. Harold himself is endearing, naive and innocent, yet growing in wisdom as the book progresses. Unfortunately, his Stepford wife, Maureen, never really becomes real to me, but stays on the page as a sort of ‘any woman’. Although I accepted, on paper, that she is working through her issues through housework, I expect a woman in the twenty-first century to have had a job at some point in her life. That said, the way she and Harold verbally snipe at each in the first chapter is sharp and painful, even though it does not exactly lure the reader in. Other characters come and go, as befits a story about a journey.
This novel, which is Rachel Joyce’s first, was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, won the UK National Book Award for New Writer of the Year and was also the best-selling hardback book in the UK from a new novelist in that year. ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ is perfect, characters perfectly drawn, plot perfectly constructed, with hooks (such as Harold being teetotal) strategically placed, and all fitting perfectly into the Three Act Graph. By and large, Rachel Joyce follows all The Rules, except – very occasionally – changing point of view mid-paragraph. Her characters pontificate to themselves a lot, but that is in the nature of the scenario. She shows that she can describe, with some wonderful depictions of changing English scenery, also that she can write dramatic encounters between characters, slowly and precisely, building up the tension and the emotion.
But, Dear Reader, I think you can sense that there is a but, although I can’t quite say what it is. Maybe, as they say, it was me not you, Harold Fry, because I didn’t connect with you or your journey. Maybe this book is too perfect. Perhaps a few rough edges would have provided a point of connection. There was a lot that might’ve happened in this book, but didn’t. This can be a plotting strength, because it may mean that a writer is avoiding cliches, but ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage’ was, for me, a little dull.
As Maureen grew vegetables, and because it is difficult to think of any other suitable images, I’m ending with a few pictures of the last vegetables in my garden, struggling to keep growing in the lacklustre autumn sun and not drowning in the rain, dew and general wetness that clings to everything outside at this time of year. There, you see, I can describe the natural environment too.