Book Review - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
If you’re following me on Twitter, you’ll know that I finished my first novel since finishing my undergrad. The last book I read was in the summer (find the review for it here), and it was so exciting to finish another one. In fact, I stayed up until two in the morning reading it, and I was so excited that I couldn’t get back to sleep. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was a great book to start off my summer of reading. It starts with a portrait of Harold Fry as a timid, observant, and absent man. The novel outlines the average, mundane life he leads; Harold is stuck. One day, he gets a letter from an old friend named Queenie. She is dying. With this, Harold sets off on a pilgrimage in the hopes that his faith will save her. On this walking journey from Knightsbridge to Berwick-Upon-Tweed, we see a change in Harold. His faith seeps out in every step. He becomes so sure of his purpose. Meanwhile, his wife Maureen has been left at home, and we see her struggle through pain to make sense of her life. The story becomes not only about Harold but Maureen and the story of their son and how to set things right. This is a novel about the power of faith, will, and determination.
The writing in this novel is excellent. Joyce reflects the story in her writing. The moments of spontaneity is written with a sense of a whirlwind. Everything is a reflection of something else. Physical pain is met with a reminder of emotional pain. I am typically not a fan of novels that switch narrations between two characters, but Joyce managed to set it out in a way that served the text perfectly. Maureen and Harold hold two different plotlines, and together, their stories are critical to a full understanding of Harold’s pilgrimage. As well, the narrative differences between Harold’s sections and Maureen’s sections show who they are as people. This style is brought out in every aspect of the novel. As readers, we are dragged along the text when Harold’s feet are dragging. We rush along, practically skipping, when Harold finds a new source of strength. Not only was the writing indicative of the plot, but Joyce managed to connect to the readers. There were moments where I was moved to tears.
What was fascinating to me was the idea of a pilgrimage. Now, I read the Canterbury Tales in Middle English this year, so I had a specific idea of what a pilgrimage is. This was a different kind of pilgrimage. Yes, Harold is walking towards something, but his pilgrimage goes beyond that. In going forward, Harold is also looking back on his life. Those skilful connections Joyce makes between physical and emotional pain serve as a reflection on the past. Harold wants to fix everything he has done wrong in his life. He goes through an emotional pilgrimage as well as a physical one. This is likely thanks to the people he meets. The chapters are set out like fables, and Harold learns something from everyone he talks to. The wide cast of characters represent many things but most importantly, the diversity of humans themselves. In learning about other people, Harold learns about himself.
I give this book a 4.5/5. I can’t quite place it on my coveted favourites list, but it’s also so much better than a simple four.
Have you read this novel? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.