Title: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Narrator: Jim Broadbent
Audiobook Length: 9 hours, 57 minutes
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Bottom Line: Simple, insightful, and beautiful
“Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in 20 years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk 600 miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him – allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.”
Thoughts: Harold Fry is an ordinary man. Newly retired, he has yet to find a hobby to fill his days. His wife has fallen out of love with him, and their relationship is a strained one. However, when a death-bed letter arrives from a former coworker, he finds himself shaken out of his lethargy and driven to do something. That something, as it turns out, is to walk across the country to save his friend. Beset by doubters, physical ailments, and issues with motivation, every step of Harold’s walk brings new discoveries and a new sense of self for both him and for his left-behind wife. Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the extraordinary story of faith, love, aging, friendship, and of rediscovering oneself no matter what age.
Harold is a delightful man and a pleasure to follow on his journey. There is a placidity to his actions that is comforting, while his thoughts are insightful in so many ways. He remains humble throughout his journey, a difficult feat given the attention he soon garners as news of his pilgrimage hits the news media, but it is his observations about himself and humanity that truly make the novel. His simple faith in the goodness of people – at first internalized and then put to the test – is profound and a healing revelation given all of the negative news that dominates the headlines these days. His remorse at his estrangement with his wife, at the strained relationship with his son, and for other regrets shows just how unexpected life’s course really is. It is at once a great reminder to stay vigilant and fight for the truly important things in life and a heart-wrenching image of what could happen to all of us.
While Harold is walking, Maureen undergoes her own spiritual journey. Hers is every bit as profound as Harold’s, although hers happens under the comfort of her own roof. While Harold’s path shows how important it is to leave one’s comfort zone and do things, Maureen’s shows the importance of self-reflection and of holding up the proverbial mirror to the truth. Both are incomplete until the two methods are combined, and their reunion is made more powerful as a result.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the type of novel that begs for an open map and web browser. His journey definitely arouses a reader’s curiosity to learn. Following along Harold’s route, looking up the tourist sites he visits, and checking out the scenery as he denotes its changes serves to enhance one’s understanding of his long journey. This is especially true for readers unfamiliar with England’s varied topography or even its geography. This multi-media interaction, however voluntary, also creates a better link to Harold’s struggling mindset, as it is easier to imagine the physical struggles that enhance his mental ones. The opportunities for learning more about English culture, geography, and people allows for a total immersion into this beautiful story.
Jim Broadbent, he of Harry Potter and Moulin Rouge fame, is the narrator. His delivery is very slow and deliberate, which can take some time to adjust to it. However, his methodical narration suits the plot so well that it soon becomes a nonissue. His is also a subtle performance, well-suited for the story. He does differentiate characters through intonation, pitch, and accent changes, the latter which also highlight Harold’s northward passage, and his emotional output is minimal. Yet, a listener can distinguish between the characters and, more importantly, can feel Harold’s ever-changing mood. Mr. Broadbent’s narration falls heavily upon the ear when Harold is struggling to find his motivation; similarly, the entire feel of his performance changes when Harold is most inspired and determined. It is a quite brilliant performance specifically because of its restraint.
Words fail to do justice to this beautiful work of prose. Each word is as deliberate as each of Harold’s steps, and the time Harold spends remembering and reflecting provides a natural inclination for readers to do the same regarding their own lives. Even better, Harold’s progress is not as one would expect. Just as in life, he starts, stumbles, doubts, continues, stumbles and doubts again, and so on. His pilgrimage truly is a metaphor for the journey of life, with the need for love, kindness, faith, and hope just as important as the need for food and shelter. While such a journey would change anyone, Maureen too undergoes astounding growth, showing that even the hardest heart can change if willing. The ending is every bit as moving as one would expect without becoming overly sentimental or manipulative. It is just a wonderful, heartfelt story that makes one feel good about this great thing called life.