Friday, December 20, 2013

#66 (2013/CBR5) "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

"Beginnings could happen more than once, or in different ways. You could think you were starting something afresh, when actually what you were doing was carrying on as before." (156)

It seems that most of the books I read these days are inspired by other Cannonballers. I first heard of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) by Rachel Joyce from Cannonball Read, and it was the positive reviews that made me want to read it. And I did like it, but it's difficult to sum up my feelings for this one. On the one hand, I'd just read an English family drama before starting on Fry, and I was ready for something different. I often felt impatient while Harold continued walking...and walking. But Harold's struggles have stayed with me. I was not too surprised when I read at the end of the book that Rachel Joyce had written this while she was coming to terms with her own father's death from cancer. It was poignant and real. If I'd been in a more introspective mood rather than yearning for adventure stories, I may have even liked it more.

Harold Fry is a retired man living with his wife in England. His marriage has become something worse than living with a stranger and he has an unknown, but obviously strained relationship with his son. One day, he receives a letter from a woman he once worked with, Queenie Hennessy, who is dying of cancer. On the way to post a reply, Harold decides to keep walking, to walk all the way to Queenie in order to save her. And so he begins his journey.

The two main aspects of Fry's journey include what he learns about himself through his struggles as well as his contemplations of his past. The other focus is on the people Fry meets, and how they affect each other. What I appreciated most about this story was Joyce's characterization of such a desperately reserved and pained couple struggling through their personal tragedies. I also liked the compassion with which Harold views the people he meets. Joyce's insight into--and descriptions of--her characters were impressive.

However, there were a couple of things that kept me from fully accepting this novel. Joyce deliberately keeps most of Harold's past from us, dropping tiny hints and clues along the way. Obviously, this was done to create some mystery and tension in the storyline, but I found it kind of annoying. I guess Harold was somewhat in denial of his past and we see it as he's able to face it himself. This is understandable, but most of the time our lack of knowledge felt arbitrary and manipulative. I often felt impatient, wanting Joyce to just tell us why Harold is so upset. In addition, I often could not understand Fry's motivations. My take is that Fry began to walk because the past had become unbearable and being the staid Englishman that he was, he was desperate and could think of nothing else to do. Yet his mood changed drastically throughout his walk and I couldn't always follow why. This took me out of the story.

Despite the couple of problems I had with his book, I'd still recommend it to others with an interest in the contemplative and thoughtful English books.

"Harold closed the front door quietly, not wishing to wake Martina, but she was watching from her bathroom window, with her face pressed to the glass. He didn't look back. He didn't wave. He caught her profile at the window and then stepped as boldly as he could, wondering if she was worrying about his blisters, or his yachting shoes, and wishing he was not leaving her alone, with only a dog and some boots. It was hard to have been her guest. It was hard to understand a little and then walk away." (145)

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