Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Random House, 2012

ISBN: 9780812993295

Milton famously said, “Solvitur ambulando,” or “It is solved by walking.” The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a case study of that aphorism.

It’s a compelling read and a very different kind of story about a man who goes on a very long walk from the bottom to the top of England. Harold receives a letter from an old workmate, Queenie, informing him she’s dying of cancer. Harold writes a reply and steps out to post it. As he walks to the post box, he wrestles with his letter’s inadequacy. He walks on, and so begins an unlikely pilgrimage. Without proper walking shoes or a phone, Harold heads north. He rings the hospice to tell Queenie to keep living; he’s on his way.

On the walk he is forced to do things he wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in his stodgy, narrow world–talking to strangers, ask for help, sleep outside. He sees and experiences so much of what he’d come to take for granted–the beauty of nature, the kindness of strangers–even the joy of being his own skin. He pares down to the bare necessities once he realises the value of living in the moment. Memories are enough to carry as he gets in touch with his many disappointments and regrets along the 500 mile trek. How had his marriage become so loveless and dead? He anguishes over having failed his son.

Back home, his wife is first outraged, then bewildered, then introspective. Harold’s pilgrimage has a transforming effect on her as well.

The book is un-put-downable, not in the breathless, gripping sense, but rather in a hopeful, curious way: I so wanted Harold Fry to fulfil his quest. I needed to find out what he discovers about his motives. What was the nature of his relationship with Queenie? Would Harold’s son reconcile with his parents? While I doubted his friend would live, I hoped she’d hang on until he arrived.

Author Rachel Joyce has done an incredible job of stealthily doling out snippets of intrigue. The emotional journey is skilfully executed; the ending full of wonder. I felt like a snared fish, hooked and being reeled in, but ever so willingly. I will be looking out for more from this wonderful writer.



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