(Warning: spoilers below.)
Harold Fry, recently retired, has been leading a life of thoroughly English1 humdrum unruffled calm; even as the book begins, however, there are signs of cracks in the facade. He and his wife Maureen do not speak, other than the few necessary phrases, such as “Pass the marmalade, please.” Indeed, she seems irritated by everything he does, sniping at seemingly minor mistakes, such as picking up the raspberry jam when he’d asked for the marmalade.
His life changes one morning when he receives a letter from Queenie, an old work acquaintance from twenty years ago, informing him that she’s in hospice, dying of cancer. She wants nothing of him, but just wanted to say goodbye and thank him for all he did for her. Harold pens a quick reply, and sets out to post it…
…only he just keeps walking after mailing the letter, having added a note to the effect of “Wait for me; I will come save you.” He does end up walking the six hundred miles from his home in Kingsbridge to Berwick-on-Tweed, with little more than the clothes he was wearing when he set out that morning. The long walk takes the physical toll one might expect of a sixty-five year old man with shoes inappropriate for more than a short stroll, and no camping gear or food, but along the way, complete strangers offer both physical and emotional support: tea and biscuits and a rest in a garden, water, bandages for his feet, their own tales of dealing with cancer.
Things take a turn for the popularized glurge when he comes to the attention of the national media, and hangers-on attach themselves to him; in the end, these people walking along with him split off and head for Berwick-on-Tweed without him, but Harold continues. As Maureen waits at home, she shifts from anger to frustration to worry, from indifference back to the passion they had at the beginning of their marriage, and in the end, comes to meet him in Berwick-on-Tweed to visit Queenie. As Harold walks, he reminisces about Queenie, his son David, and his wife. Queenie was a plain woman but a gifted accountant; Harold defends her against the barbs from the other men at the brewery which employs them, and he’s later assigned to drive her to the various pubs which purchase from the brewery, to check their books.
Joyce drops hints through the book that there’s a dark secret in the past; why else would Harold feel compelled to walk six hundred miles when he could drive or take public transit? It’s not until nearly the end of the book that readers find out what this is: David committed suicide, and it was Harold who found his son hanging in the garden shed. He went off the rails and began drinking heavily; one day in an alcoholic haze, he not only dismantled the garden shed but broke into his boss’s office to smash all the glass figurines of which said boss was inordinately proud. Queenie knew Harold had done it, but rather than say as much, she took the rap for him and was fired on the spot. The two did not communicate again until that last letter that precipitated Harold’s pilgrimage…and it is as close to a penitential pilgrimage as a modern non-religious person is likely to make these days. But Harold arrives too late to do more than hold Queenie’s hand for a few moments; the cancer surgeries have left her a physical wreck, only for the last tumor to distort her face into a gargoyle-like parody, and she is incapable of more than moaning wordlessly.
I would disagree with the reviewers who said this is an unsentimental book; it’s so permeated with sentiment that it oozed as I read it, but I am grateful for the fact that Joyce did NOT succumb to the ultimate in feel-good tropes and have Queenie survive. There’s nothing Harold could have done to save her, and indeed he comes too late to even tell Queenie what her act twenty years ago meant to him. Faith may be a comforting thing to have, but there’s a limit to what it can do. Harold and Maureen may have reconstructed the love they had at the beginning of their marriage, but Queenie and David are still gone.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is worth reading, to be sure. If you’re susceptible to emotional books, make sure you’ve got plenty of tissues. I fear I may be another of the heartless readers who were not as touched by this as others feel we ought to have been. Worth reading, definitely. Brilliant? Let me get back to you when Joyce has produced other books of similar caliber. I’ve read too many first novels from authors who never produced anything so good again to be wholeheartedly supportive of this. My apologies.
1not all British are like this, nor are all other nations condemned to riot and excitement; it’s just that Fry is doing it in a manner unique to the English.