Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Book - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryThis book may seem like an ordinary story about a fairly ordinary man to whom nothing particularly interesting is likely to happen, but it’s far more than that. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry follows in the footsteps of its protagonist: a recently retired man who has led a fairly unremarkable life. It is when he receives a letter from an old colleague whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years, that he sets off on a rather long and spontaneous journey, on foot.   

Harold Fry is a likeable man, rather unassuming, very ‘English’, not wanting to give offence to anyone but preferring to stay in the shadows and not draw any unnecessary attention, and it is extremely out of character for him to set off on an unplanned journey, with no walking equipment or supplies, determined to travel all the way from the south west coast of England to Berwick upon Tweed, in the North East, to visit his old colleague, Queenie Hennessey. But Harold is determined that, by walking, he is giving her hope, helping her to fight cancer, and encouraging her to live a little longer.

As Harold walks, he also remembers, and it seems there must be more to this sudden decision than he chooses to reveal, either to the reader or to himself. We learn of his quiet friendship with Queenie, the only female employee in the brewery where they both worked, and Harold’s regret that she had to leave suddenly all those years ago. But what of Mrs Fry? Harold’s wife is shocked when he sets off walking for the sake of a woman he hasn’t seen in so long. The story may well be ‘unlikely’ but it’s certainly believable, and the mix of ordinary, kind, hurting and well-meaning people that Harold meets along the way is also realistic, as is the wear and tear on his shoes and feet.

This is a book which achieves something quite difficult but with effortless ease – the celebration of the ordinary over the extraordinary, and the simple things in life. It’s also a story with a heart-breaking tale of grief and guilt at its centre, a story about the pain of loving someone and watching them suffer and, ultimately, it’s a story of forgiveness.

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