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Published in 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the debut novel by Rachel Joyce, award-winning writer of more than twenty plays for BBC Radio 4 and former Royal Shakespeare Company actor.
Set in contemporary Britain the book starts off with a rather 1950s Women’s Weekly twee prose but soon takes different twists and turns as Joyce takes the reader on a walk with the novel’s downtrodden protagonist, Harold Fry, from England’s West country to its border with Scotland. However, this book is not a travelogue but is a tale of Harold’s journey to visit a former female colleague, Queenie, who is dying and who wants to see him again before her demise. Why did he not just catch a train? It would have been quicker, but he walks, ludicrously unprepared and unkitted out, as he believes the longer his expedition takes the longer Queenie will live.
Joyce’s writing is deceptively simple but beguiling, and if you are familiar with England’s geography whether through travel or birth, her description of places evokes nostalgia. The characters whom Harold meets are mostly believable and quite different from the sorts of people he usually associates with, including his wife.
The analogy with a pilgrimage from his blistered feet due to inappropriate shoes, seeking food and shelter where he can, to attaining his goal or enlightenment is evident. Will he arrive before Queenie dies? Will his stale 47 year marriage to his embittered wife survive and rekindle? Will he undergo a transformation? Read the book to find out!