Rachel Joyce's first novel — about a retired Englishman shuffling off to visit a dying colleague — sounds twee, but it's surprisingly steely, even inspiring, the kind of quirky book you want to shepherd into just the right hands. If your friends don't like it, you may have to stop returning their calls for a little while until you can bring yourself to forgive them.
Joyce was an actor for 20 years before she started writing plays for BBC Radio, but The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is not a story of much drama. It begins on a spring day like any other in a small English village. Harold, recently retired from the local brewery, now has nothing to do. "He never did the unexpected," Joyce writes. "Days went by and nothing changed; only his waist thickened, and he lost more hair." Worse, after 47 years of marriage, he and his wife, Maureen, live like strangers in their spotless home. Their once-promising son never calls, never visits.
That grim stillness is disrupted on the opening page with the arrival of a "letter that would change everything." Queenie Hennessy, a woman Harold worked with 20 years ago, has written to say goodbye; she's dying of cancer. Recalling the "stout, plain-looking woman," he composes a bland note of condolence and walks to the post office. But along the way, he decides instead to deliver it by hand to Queenie's hospice. That is, he decides to keep walking, past the post office, out of town and another 500 miles.
That marvelous note of absurdity tempers the pain that runs beneath this whole novel. Joyce has no interest in mocking Harold; she describes his quixotic trek in a gentle, matter-of-fact voice, mile after mile. At 65, he's never walked farther than his own driveway. He has no map, cellphone or change of clothes, and his thin yachting shoes couldn't be less appropriate for such a journey. But when the idea of saving Queenie blooms in the fallow soil of his mind, he can't be stopped. "I will keep walking," he declares, "and she must keep living."
For all of us perfectly responsible, stoop-shouldered suburbanites, Harold's ridiculous journey is a cause for celebration. This is Walter Mitty skydiving. This is J. Alfred Prufrock not just eating that peach, but throwing the pit out the window, rolling up his trousers and whistling to those hot mermaids.
If Joyce allows Harold initial moments of euphoria, she quickly proves herself a stern realist. Over the days and weeks that follow, the physical demands of such a trip take their bloody toll. This may be the first novel that gives you sympathy blisters.
All this free time in changing surroundings inspires waves of remembering — most of it miserable. How did his once-happy marriage wither into such aggrieved silence? Why was he such a timid father to the boy he loved? What drives him, after all these years, to reach out to Queenie? Considering those questions is far more agonizing for Harold than walking 500 miles in his taped-up shoes.
Pilgrimages seem to have fallen out of favor in the West, though our literature began with one to Canterbury. Nowadays, the term sounds fusty; we're more likely to go on a cruise than a pilgrimage. And yet hearing of Harold's long walk — so simple, so impractical, so revolutionary — is a heartening reminder of just what those old pilgrims knew about the power of shaking off everything familiar and striking out for a distant place with a hallowed purpose and hopeful heart.