Book Review: 2012 Long Listed: Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Review #2)

Rating: 4
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
A Novel
by Rachel Joyce

2012 / 336 Pages

Some books one picks up just hit a nerve, touch off a series of memories that have been repressed.  They can remind you of a person, place or thing with such a choke hold that you can’t put them down for  fear of forgetting about the experience that book has opened back up to you.  When you do put the book down you reminisce about the person,  place or thing before getting up to continue about your day.  The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht was one of these books for me and now Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is another.

Have you ever woken up one morning and realized you have wasted X number of years of your life?  Have you ever realized that you have allowed a person, place or thing use and manipulate you to the point that you no longer know who you are and what you want out of life?  Have you ever woken up to realize how short life is and you only have the opportunity to live life once?

Well, on January 1, 2009, I woke up and realized that I had lost the two previous years of my life working 60-65 hours a week – given it to my employer for a paycheck in return.  Like selling your soul to the devil.  So, that very morning I started taking back my life and started my pilgrimage. By the time my pilgrimage was over I had ridden a bike across the United States (and found a new employer).  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Michelle Williams…

So begins The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  Harold is an typical Englishman.  He has woken up one morning and sat at his kitchen table eating breakfast just like every other morning.  His life is ordinary and he has spent more time trying to fade into the background than he has trying to be noticed.  His marriage and his relationship with his son seem to be failures.  He has allowed something to come between him and a good friend – allowing her to become “someone he used to know”.  Then he receives a letter from this friend, Queenie, and his pilgrimage begins.

Harold’s march across England is not much different that any adventure story.  He meets interesting characters and encounters obstacles including his own self doubt along the way. His pilgrimage not only gives him time to reflect on the past but it also allows his wife Maureen time to reflect on the past as well.  The result is a very heartwarming story of reconciliation, forgiveness and true love.

This book was an easy piece of literature.  The reader did not have to struggle with a complicated plot nor with trying to figure out the underlining history weaving its way through the book.  One need not Google a phrase or refer back to a list of characters in order to keep the Thomases and the Henrys separated.  My co-conspirator at BookerMarks, Aaron (Opinionless), believed that the book was contrived and Ms. Joyce did not leave anything for the reader to figure out on his own.  Indeed the reader did not have to think about anything while on the journey with Harold – unless they wanted to.  Does this make the book un-Booker worthy?  Yet, when a piece of literature can touch a persons inner being, making them stop to think about their own lives, their own past relationships, doesn’t that make this book special?

So, what are the standards books should be judged by?  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a very good heartwarming story.  The question is – is it Booker worthy?  Stand this next to last years winner, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, and I would probably lean towards Harold Fry.  Stack it up next to Wolf Hall the 2009 winner – the two books are night and day different.  Wolf Hall wins on literary scope and style alone.  Stack this up against anything that David Mitchell wrote (Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoit) and the unfortunate Harold is left on the starting blocks. Can you give a book a score for readability and a score for literary greatness?  I will be recommending Harold to many people.  I will recommend it over Wolf Hall and The Sense of an Ending to most of the readers I know.  I give the book 5 stars for just being a good book that I enjoyed reading and a score of 3 for literary greatness – for an average score of 4.  Let us see how Harold stacks up against the other 11 long listed Booker nominees…

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