The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Book choices generally go like this: either I’m lured in by the Kindle recommendation (too smart for its own good if you ask me), or else I shamefacedly resort to Richard and Judy. Recently I decided enough was enough. It was high time to read something cold – venture out into the intrepid world of literature and discover.

My little quest led me to another little quest. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is just too delicious a title to resist – hinting, as it does, at the decidedly humble character caught off-guard by the tantalisingly unexpected. And, with poor Harold Fry, that’s exactly what we get.

Harold has recently retired from his lifelong job at a brewery. So now he is facing the daily torture of life with Maureen, the wife attempting to rid decades of misery from their marriage with only the aid of a scouring pad and a very clean pair of net curtains. Little of significance has passed between Mr and Mrs Fry for a very long time. Their conversations are deafeningly silent: a few shorthand words standing in for an awful lot of unsaid feelings.

When Harold receives a letter from Queenie, an old colleague who is dying, he sets out to post a reply and is struck with an extraordinary impulse to walk. It’s an impulse that takes him away from himself and his little life and yet, somehow, it also takes him inexorably back. Perhaps the book should be called: The Excavation of Harold Fry’s Flesh and Blood. For that’s what his journey is: the moulding of his limbs back together Humpty Dumpty style. And through every step he takes, we follow him, cheering all the way.

This is the tale of simple people with simple problems – tragic and ordinary at the same time. It is a celebration of the average man’s feats of brilliance; just as the prose celebrates the beautifully succinct. There is no sentence overloaded with literary grandness or full of its own self-importance. Joyce manages to be both artful and economical with description and what a joy it is. If you don’t want to climb from your sofa and head off out on a journey of your own, you have no soul!

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