The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

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.

This novel is A Man Called Ove meets Forrest Gump meets The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, but with more unlikely circumstances thrown in to increase the length of the novel, maybe. Initially the novel caught my attention but soon became tedious. Multiple unresolved plot threads and insipid characters made it a dull read.

The premise is unassuming. An elderly man decides to walk to an old friend who is dying of cancer. He believes that time, distance and his intentions will delay the inevitable. During the course of his journey, he unravels aspects of his past life, seeking answers and clarification to muddled memories of an abandoned son, an unhappy marriage and a lonely childhood. He meets a myriad of characters on the way and many join him. Thus a simple walk becomes a pilgrimage of sorts.

Sometimes he believed he had become more memory than present. He replayed scenes from his life, like a spectator trapped on the outside. Seeing the mistakes, the inconsistencies, the choices that shouldn’t be made, and yet unable to do anything about them.

Despite a simple plot, the novel is trite in its structure and story. Characters who have no bearing on the plot are introduced aimlessly. Even though Harold’s resolve is admirable, the nature of his walk and overall treatment of elements of surprise are contentious. The overblown spectacle of the pilgrimage comes down to nothing – it just dissipates into Harold and his wife Maureen’s sudden reconciliation.

I really wonder how and why this novel was longlisted for Man Booker prize in 2012. The writing is neither poetic nor does the story hold much gravitas.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • ‘Does anyone work here?’ shouted a man in a pinstripe suit from the counter. He rapped his car keys on the hard surface, beating out wasted time.
  • Harold Fry was a tall man who moved through life with a stoop, as if expecting a low beam, or a screwed-up paper missile, to appear out of nowhere.
  • It surprised him that he was remembering all this. Maybe it was the walking. Maybe you saw even more than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet.
  • He hoped there wouldn’t be a row. He hoped they weren’t one of those couples who said in public the dangerous things they could not voice at home.
  • Small words were exchanged and they were safe. They hovered over the surface of what could never be said, because that was unfathomable and would never be bridged.
  • 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.
  • You could never describe Joan as affectionate, but at least she stood between her son and the clouds.
  • The reason she had stayed with Harold all these years was not David. It wasn’t even because she felt sorry for her husband. She had stayed because, however lonely she was with Harold, the world without him would be even more desolate.
  • In accepting he had learned something new. It was as much of a gift to receive as it was to give, requiring as it did both courage and humility.
  • If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there. I’ve begun to think we sit far more than we’re supposed to.
  • If you had the wherewithal, you could even follow his journey on Twitter. Maureen hadn’t the wherewithal.
  • They chose a coffee outlet on the ground floor of a department store because she said you could always trust the things you knew.
  • We hang on by so little, he thought, and felt the full despair of knowing that.
  • Once she had been a woman called Queenie Hennessy. She did sums, and wrote with an impeccable hand. She had loved a few times, and she had lost, and that was all as it should be. She had touched life, played with it a little, but it is a slippery bugger, and finally we must close the door, and leave it behind. A frightening thought for all these years. But now? Not frightening. Not anything. She was so tired. She dropped her face against her pillow, and felt something opening like a flower in her head, as it grew heavy.

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