Book Review: 2012 Long Listed: Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The_Unlikely_Pilgrimage_Of_Harold_FryRating: 3
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
A Novel by Rachel Joyce
2012 / 336 Pages

The Setup: Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.

Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit of youth and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him–allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.

And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.

A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise–and utterly irresistible–storyteller. (From the hardcover edition)

This review was simultaneously published on Opinionless on 08/01/2012

Recently the Opinionless Virtual Book Club had a conversation with The World Without You author Joshua Henkin about, amongst other things, his writing process and the effort that goes into crafting truly memorable characters. We all know the type. The kind that seem to leap from the page and lodge themselves firmly in our brains as if they were actual living, breathing human beings. The kind that we want to scold or commend. The kind that we find ourselves shaking our heads in disgust at or in agreement with as we read along, frantically turning the pages for more.

One of the theories brought forth was that well written characters should not speak directly to the author’s beliefs, his or her hidden agenda, or manipulate the reader to feel a certain way. In fact they don’t even have to be likable or relatable; they just have to be complex enough, and multi-faceted enough to be believable as individuals who could exist in the real world.

If we apply that logic to the character of Harold Fry what we find is that he’s your typical polite, reserved, unassuming, quiet Englishman. This wouldn’t be so bad on its own (although this type of character been done to death countless times), but boy oh boy is this one manipulative novel.

Author Rachel Joyce doesn’t waste even a single sentence when it comes to telling you exactly how you should feel at every turn of the page. From the novel’s delightfully playful opening to its gripping, well written conclusion there’s not a single breathable inch of space left open for the reader to fill in based on their own thoughts, experiences, or perceptions of what they’ve read. In fact, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is such a straight-forward, by-the-numbers affair that it actually feels quite out of place when compared to the rest of this year’s Man Booker longlisted titles.

There are no drug addicted eunuchs to be found here (Narcopolis). Nor are there are any mothers that are angry at their daughters for purposely installing dead batteries in their vibrator because they’ve been rubbing themselves raw (The Yips). In this respect The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a disappointing entry on a list that claims to support “ambition and experiment” (last year’s judge Gabby Wood) and claims to “back innovation” (Justine Jordan, the Guardian) because nothing could be further from the truth.  There’s nothing ambitious, experimental, or innovative about this title. It’s a highly derivative quest piece. However, it’s not completely without merit.

Rachel Joyce has a gift for writing clear, concise prose that dares the reader to attempt to disengage from it. Hours can, and will, fly by in the blink of an eye as one reads this novel. It explores multiple themes including, friendship, marriage, commitment, and perhaps most importantly it beats the reader over the head with a club until they fully come to understand that the things left unsaid in life often become the most important. These aren’t bad messages to convey and it’s tough to fault Joyce for wanting to write an uplifting novel to support these ideas.  Ultimately though, her own ruminations on the topics take center stage and the true voices of the characters she’s created are lost. Every bit of Harold Fry’s journey felt forced and plotted as a direct result.

Still, it’s not a bad novel, just a flawed one. Most of the time I’m quick to point out that when it comes to fiction the journey is usually the reward and is well worth the effort spent, but here the reward really does go hand in hand with the story’s conclusion. For all of its meandering along as Harold walks cross-country, ending up in one strange circumstance after another as he attempts to will his dying friend to continue to live on, the true realities of his situation hit home hard in the final chapters and leave the reader reeling, gasping for breath.

Is everything that leads up to arriving at that point worth it though? To answer that question you’ll have to judge for yourself.



  1. Interesting. I liked it more than this – certainly flawed, in the structure (charming but misleading beginning, very plodding (!) middle section, quite sentimental ending) and in most of the characters (Harold is still not real, and the various folk he meets are barely there) – but it gets to where it wants to be, fairly surely. It is manipulative but I have no objection to being manipulated by fiction, and actually kind of demand that, from some types of books anyway. The last few chapters are very strong indeed – perhaps not the very last one, which is too tidy – and I’d say that the one major mistake was to set up this conventional journey thing in the beginning, but that having done that, RJ made a good fist of it.

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