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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Harold Fry is an ordinary man, living a normal life that some might call humdrum or forlorn. The arrival of a brief message from a woman he hasn’t seen in 20 years changes his life, and quite possibly the lives of others whom he has yet to meet.  

"Harold’s journey into his self resonates in our current society.... [Joyce's] flawless narrative and dialogue crackle with authenticity and vitality."

Harold is a pensioner, recently retired from a lifelong job with a brewery. He lives with his wife of 40 years, Maureen, in a modest home in Kingsbridge on the southern coast of England. Reading the note over his morning tea and toast, he feels compelled to answer. He sets off to mail his inadequate words of encouragement to Queenie Hennessy, an accountant at the brewery who is in a hospice in Berwick Upon Tweed on the Scottish border. As he mentally tries to compose a more satisfactory response, he passes by mailing station after mailing station, and finally decides that he must go see her in person. Convinced that she will hang on until he gets there, he jots a quick postscript that he is on his way, drops the note in the post, and sets out on foot on the 600-mile trek. It is a fine English spring morning, and wearing only his shirt, necktie and slacks, his feet clad in yacht shoes (in America we would call them topsiders), he sets off on his life-changing odyssey.

We accompany Harold on his pilgrimage as he suffers blisters and cramps, tries to overcome inclement weather, loses his way, and meets a multitude of kind strangers with stories of their own. We are both amused and dismayed with every agonizing step in the first days, wondering where he will sleep and what he will eat. Harold is not at all worried, but the impracticality of his whimsical decision weighs heavily on his wife, who doesn’t know he has disappeared until nightfall when he briefly checks in by phone.  

Their life story unfolds as they both react to his challenging decision. He encounters many ordinary people along the road in small towns and large, who often fall in beside him. He listens to their stories without judging. He discovers that “…It is the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that was the dilemma of being human. He walked so surely that it was as if all his life he had been waiting to get up from his chair.”

Harold’s journey into his self resonates in our current society. His solitude brings him insight and wisdom, allowing him to believe in his own strengths. His estranged wife, abandoned so unexpectedly, makes a parallel journey of her own as she resolves issues that have plagued them both for half their married life.

This small first novel, just over 300 pages, has become an international bestseller and has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Rachel Joyce is an award-winning playwright for BBC Radio 4, and her flawless narrative and dialogue crackle with authenticity and vitality.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on July 26, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce

  • Publication Date: March 26, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812983459
  • ISBN-13: 9780812983456