Rachel Joyce’s first novel — about a retired Englishman shuffling off to visit a dying colleague — sounds twee, but it’s surprisingly steely, even inspiring, the kind of quirky book you want to shepherd into just the right hands. If your friends don’t like it, you may have to stop returning their calls for a little while until you can bring yourself to forgive them.
The loyalty inspired by this unassuming story is surprising. Joyce was an actress for 20 years before she started writing plays for BBC Radio, but “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” is not a story of much drama. It begins on a spring day like any other in a small English village in Kingsbridge. Harold recently retired from the local brewery, and now has nothing to do. “He never did the unexpected,” Joyce writes. “Days went by and nothing changed; only his waist thickened, and he lost more hair.” Worse, after 47 years of marriage, he and his wife, Maureen, live like strangers in their spotless home, where the air is thick with blame. Their once-promising son never calls, never visits.
That grim stillness is disrupted on the opening page with the arrival of a “letter that would change everything.” Queenie Hennessy, a woman Harold worked with 20 years ago, has written to say goodbye; she’s dying of cancer. Recalling the “stout, plain-looking woman,” he composes a bland note of condolence and walks over to the post office. But along the way, he decides instead to deliver it by hand to Queenie’s hospice. That is, he decides to keep walking, past the post office, out of town and another 500 miles.
That marvelous note of absurdity tempers the pain that runs beneath this whole novel. Joyce has no interest in mocking Harold; she just describes his quixotic trek in a gentle, matter-of-fact voice, mile after mile. At 65, he’s never walked farther than his own driveway. He has no map, cellphone or change of clothes, and his thin yachting shoes couldn’t be less appropriate for such a journey across England. “Harold would have been the first to admit that there were elements to his plan that were not finely tuned,” Joyce writes. But when the idea of saving Queenie blooms in the fallow soil of his mind, he can’t be stopped. “I will keep walking,” he declares, “and she must keep living.”
Is this a late midlife crisis? Is Harold suffering the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s, or has he fallen under a spiritual delusion? Shouldn’t someone drive down the street and fetch him home before he hurts himself?
For all of us perfectly responsible, stoop-shouldered suburbanites wearing a path in the living-room carpet, Harold’s ridiculous journey is a cause for celebration. This is Walter Mitty skydiving. This is J. Alfred Prufrock not just eating that peach, but throwing the pit out the window, rolling up his trousers and whistling to those hot mermaids. Released from the cage of his own passivity, Harold feels transformed, though he keeps his tie on. “The abundance of new life was enough to make him giddy,” Joyce writes. “England opened beneath his feet, and the feeling of freedom, of pushing into the unknown, was so exhilarating he had to smile. He was in the world by himself and nothing could get in the way or ask him to mow the lawn.”
If Joyce allows Harold these initial moments of euphoria, she quickly proves herself a stern realist. Over the days and weeks that follow, the physical demands of such a trip take their bloody toll. This may be the first novel that gives you sympathy blisters. And Harold’s ravaged feet are the least of his problems. All this free time in changing surroundings inspires great waves of remembering and reconsideration — most of it miserable. How did his once-happy marriage wither into such aggrieved silence? Why was he such a timid father to the boy he loved? What drives him, after all these years to reach out to Queenie? Considering those questions is far more agonizing for Harold than walking 500 miles in his taped-up shoes.
But his pain resonates with others, too, and soon Harold finds that his strange odyssey serves a purpose beyond himself. “He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others,” Joyce writes. “As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen.” Some of those people are even weirder than he is: “a tax inspector who was a Druid,” “a priest who confessed to tweeting during mass,” “a white witch from Glastonbury.” The most touching moments, though, are Harold’s encounters with people who need to see firsthand an act of pure, impractical hope like his.
Joyce experiments with Harold as a Christ figure, burdened with quarrelsome disciples who inevitably want to warp his simple trek into a set of practices and rules. Although it’s a clever bit of religious satire, I was happy to get Harold back on his solitary way. Whether he’ll succeed or not remains an open question — as does the meaning and purpose of his quest. Despite the light wit that sparkles through the early sections of the novel, Harold eventually must come face to face with horrors that would crush anyone’s faith. But what would a real pilgrimage be without a dark night of the soul?
Pilgrimages seem to have fallen out of favor in the West, though our literature began with one to Canterbury and took another giant step 300 years later with John Bunyan. Nowadays, the term sounds fusty, draped in black vestments. We’re more likely to go on a cruise than a pilgrimage; we travel to relax, not to be transformed. And yet hearing of Harold’s long walk — so simple, so impractical, so revolutionary — is a heartening reminder of just what those old pilgrims knew about the power of shaking off everything familiar and striking out for a distant place with a hallowed purpose and hopeful heart.
In 2010, I reviewed a spate of “wandering” novels — Joshua Ferris’s “The Unnamed,”Damon Galgut’s “In a Strange Room” and James Hynes’s “Next” — books about depressed men walking around wondering what it all means. They were all exquisitely written, more polished than “Harold Fry,” but I prefer Joyce’s novel, even with its detours and rough patches. For all her merciless insistence on the brutality of illness, she has a lovely sense of the possibilities of redemption. In this bravely unpretentious and unsentimental tale, she’s cleared space where miracles are still possible. When Harold’s bitter old wife realizes that “the world without him would be even more desolate,” I know just what she means.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage
of Harold Fry
By Rachel Joyce
Random House. 320 pp. $25