The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

‘I am on my way. All you have to do is wait. Because I am going to save you, you see. I will keep walking and you must keep living.’

Very occasionally, I read a book which I love so much I keep picking it up to look at it again, to turn the pages in admiration for what is written on them, even when I’ve finished it. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is one of those books. Highly original, brilliantly written and utterly compelling, this is a wonderful book which I will be urging everyone to read.

Recently-retired Harold Fry receives a letter one morning from an old work colleague, Queenie Hennessy, telling him that she is dying of cancer. Compelled to write to Queenie to express his sadness at hearing this news, Harold finds he is unable to simply post his letter. Feeling that this is an inadequate response for a woman who has, clearly, had much more of an impact on his life than we at first realise, he starts to walk to her instead. There are 627 miles between them.

With this simple, yet extraordinary idea of an elderly man walking all the way from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the hope that he will give his friend a reason to keep living, I was completely drawn into Harold’s life and his, seemingly impossible, journey. And yet I didn’t doubt him for a second.

Harold’s is a journey which is littered with complications – not just because of his inadequate walking gear and total lack of preparation – but by the turbulent memories of his life which his walk unlocks.  As Harold continues – against all odds – to put one foot in front of the other, the complexities of his childhood, his marriage, his working life, his connection to Queenie Hennessy and his relationship with his son  are slowly unraveled.

Meanwhile, back at home in Devon, we are drawn into the life of Harold’s wife, Maureen. As her husband walks slowly away from her, she finds herself slowly drawn back to the man she has forgotten how to love. Maureen is a wonderful character, as is the next door neighbour, Rex, who becomes Maureen’s unlikely ally in her struggle to come to terms with Harold’s journey.

Harold Fry is a richly drawn, loveable, hero –  a Forrest Gump for the 21st century. An ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances and whose faith, determination and sense of duty to a woman who made a sacrifice for him in the past, keep him going on his unlikely pilgrimage.

With beautiful descriptions of the nature which surrounds Harold as he walks, and with some lovely touches of black comedy and fabulous insights into very real, human emotions, there is much to keep the pages turning.

Ultimately, Harold’s journey is about much more than reaching Queenie Hennessy, and there are many unexpected emotional twists and turns as the story reaches its climax and Harold reaches his destination. I, for one, wept tears of sadness and joy.

Harold Fry will stay with me for a very, very long time. I certainly look forward to reading more from this highly talented author.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is published by Doubleday,  in hardback.

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