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Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Random House; 336 pages; $25).


            We tend to take too many things and people for granted in our lives.  Please do not think I am preaching; I, too, am guilty.  Often, our iPhones, iPads, kindles, and other such devices preoccupy our daily routines.  The ping of an incoming message lures us to our screens like nothing else matters; our response to such stimuli is almost Pavlovian.  We tend to tune out anything else that is going on around us.  We forget those most important to us, and for that we are remiss.

We are not promised tomorrow.  In these uncertain times of war and terrorism, we sometimes forget that each day is a miracle.  Just take the events on July 20, 2012, when James Holmes killed twelve people and injured more than fifty others during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.  During this brutal and senseless tragedy, people aided the wounded and pulled them to safety, even when their own lives were in danger.  People banded together.  In the days since the killings, we have heard many stories of bravery and hope despite the ugliness of the act.  Funny how it seems we only become one in the face of a tragedy.

I ask you: If we are not safe in a movie theatre, where are we safe? The bleak answer I came up with was nowhere.  It was a profound and scary realization.

However, during the shootings, I was lucky enough to be in the midst of reading a novel that managed to restore my faith in man.  Although The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is fiction, it can teach us a lot about life.  Harold’s inspirational journey changes his life and those closest to him.  Harold is no superhero; rather, he is an ordinary man who does an extraordinary thing.  We can all learn a lot from him.

Harold Fry is 65 and retired six months ago. He spends most of his time sitting in his chair.  Estranged from his son, Harold has spent a lifetime not questioning and instead being meek and mild.  In other words, Harold is the proper Englishman; he does not believe in rocking the boat.  He and his wife, Maureen, sleep in separate rooms.  Over the years their relationship has deteriorated.  For years, “they had been in a place where language had no significance.  She only had to look at him and she was wrenched to the past.  Small words were exchanged and they were safe.  They hovered over the surface of what could never be said, because that was unfathomable and would never be bridged.”

Then, Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old co-worker from twenty years ago.  “It’s—cancer,” Harold tells Maureen.  “Queenie,” he explains, “is writing to say goodbye.”

The news overcomes him.  Harold writes her a note, but it just seems so darn inadequate.  After a life of inaction, Harold is desperate to do something.  What begins as a quick jaunt to mail Queenie’s letter spirals into an unlikely journey of 87 days and 627 miles from Harold’s home in Kingsbridge to Queenie’s hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Harold’s mindset is simple, really.  He believes that as long as he keeps walking, Queenie “must live.”  Harold calls the hospice and begs one of the nuns to give Queenie a message: “Tell her Harold Fry is on his way.  All she has to do is wait.  Because I am going to save her, you see.  I will keep walking and she must keep living.”

You may laugh at Harold at first.  I know I did.  He sets off with just the clothes on his back and he even wears a tie.  No fancy walking shoes for Harold.  He just wears his trusted old yacht shoes.  He has no water bottles or Powerade, no nutrition bars, and no cell phone.  He does not even have that much money!  I did not expect Harold to get very far, honestly, with no supplies and little money.  I kept waiting for someone to murder him actually.

But, over time, I came to believe in Harold, too.  His journey is difficult, though, as all quests must be.  Maureen fails to understand why exactly Harold is undertaking this pilgrimage.  She thinks her husband had an affair with Queenie.

Joyce throws many obstacles in Harold’s path.  Sometimes it seems as if he will never complete his expedition.  His body fails him; his spirit plummets.  Harold endures awful English weather and snickers from those who see an old man walking on the side of the road.

When he tells the people he meets along the way his story, many help him on his quest.  Some provide plasters and tape for his feet; some give him food.  Others give him a bed to sleep on.  A few just listen.  Many encourage him to keep going.  Harold tells them about Queenie, and they, in turn, tell Harold their own stories—uplifting anecdotes of sick loved ones or even accounts of their own struggles in life.  Harold internalizes their chronicles; they actually become a part of him.  Funnily enough, Harold, in a nod to Forrest Gump and Jesus, attracts disciples.  His groupies only end up distracting Harold, though, from his goal.  But only temporarily.

The roadblocks Harold must navigate his way through mirror the obstacles we all must overcome in life.  Like Harold, we must persevere, even when our goals seem impossible.  Harold tells us, “I admit it is an awfully long way to Berwick.  I admit I am wearing the wrong clothes.  And I also admit I have not the training, or the physique, for my walk.”  Harold never gives up, though: “Even when a big part of me is saying I should give up, I can’t.  Even when I don’t want to keep going, I still do it.”  He may falter, he may fall down, but he gets back up again.

Harold keeps his eye on the prize: getting to Queenie.  For Harold, his journey is transformative.  Harold is “beginning again.”  He learns “it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness.”  The world, he realizes, is “made up of people putting one foot in front of the other.”  One of the most profound of Harold’s revelations is this: “everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”  The Harold at the end of this story is not the same Harold we met in the beginning.

Joyce produces a life-affirming story.  The novel is a tribute to her dad, who died of cancer.  This book has Joyce’s “heart in it,” and it shows.

In these uncertain times, we’re lucky to have Harold, an “Everyman” archetype, whose improbable journey fills us with hope and renews our faith in the human spirit.  Harold and those he meets show there is still goodness in people, even when it seems the world is crazy.  Harold goes on a 21st century pilgrimage and he takes us with him.  You will root for this unlikely hero, and you will take a part of him with you.  I guarantee it.



Filed under book review, books, fiction

A Modern Family on Holiday

The Red House by Mark Haddon (Doubleday; 272 pages; $25.95).


            A death in the family.  A brother and sister estranged.  A holiday.  A house in the country.  What a perfect setting for comedy and tragedy as Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, returns with a new novel about a modern family and all its triumphs and insecurities in The Red House.  Haddon pulls back the layers of a family to display them at their absolute worst.  Yet, only then, curiously, can they fully understand each other.


Richard and Angela, both middle-aged, are siblings.  Their mother recently passed away of a long illness closely resembling dementia.  Richard and Angela have not been close since their teens.  “Angela and Richard,” Haddon writes, “had spent no more than an afternoon in each other’s company over the last fifteen years.”  Many bottled-up emotions threaten to overpower them both.  The siblings never “felt like brother and sister, just two people who spoke briefly on the phone every few weeks or so to manage the stages of their mother’s decline.”


In a conciliatory gesture, Richard and his wife, Louisa, rent a country house in England for a week and invite Angela and her family.  Everyone arrives with lots of literal and figurative baggage.


Richard had “remarried six months ago, acquiring a stepdaughter in the bargain.”  He is a doctor who may be facing a malpractice suit when he returns from holiday.  His new wife, Louisa, has a past and tries too hard to fit into Richard’s life, even if that means losing the person she is.  Louisa’s daughter, Melissa, thinks she is a “princess,” better than everyone else.  Melissa and some friends bullied another girl to the point she attempted suicide.


Angela loses her grip on reality and suffers from the same debilitating illness her mother had.  Her husband, Dominic, is having an affair.  Their son, Alex, flirts shamelessly with both Louisa and Melissa.  Daisy, their daughter, finds herself caught between her religion and homosexuality.  Benjy, the baby, loves fantasies and who could blame him with this family?


The holiday is the perfect set-up for long-held grudges, pent-up emotions, dark family secrets, jealousies, resentments, bottled-up desires to rear their ugly heads.  The Red House is Shakespearean tragic-comedy at its best.


There are no chapters in The Red House; instead, Haddon divides the novel into days of the week.  Haddon begins the novel on a Friday and ends the following Friday.  Structuring the novel in such a way enables Haddon to use flash fiction to tell his story.


Employing short bursts of narrative, Haddon writes little vignettes, often consisting of only a few paragraphs.  Reading the book, I felt as if I had become the house in question in the novel.  It was as if I were eavesdropping on the characters, but only for three to five minutes before traveling on to see what the others were up to.


Think also of changing the channel on a television.  For a few moments, you manage to get a feel for what is being broadcast before you change the channel once again.  Millions of stimuli bombard you just in that short length of time.  That is what reading The Red House feels like, and this reader was entranced.


Flash fiction has not been around long.  In fact, only within the last year have I read this sub-genre of literary fiction.  Most flash fiction consists of only about 100 or so words or one or two paragraphs.  Haddon does not limit himself to a specific word or paragraph count.  Flash fiction can often become gimmicky, but not for Haddon and not with The Red House.  Haddon remains in control of his story and in control of his use of flash fiction.  This is not that simple to do.  Done right, flash fiction can be beautiful, as it is here.


Haddon writes with depth and nuance.  He uses body language in such a way that what is unspoken carries just as much significance as what is said.  The conflicts of Haddon’s characters drive this story, no matter if they are inner ones or those between characters or even against nature.  Haddon points out that only when conflicts are resolved can we go on with life.  While his conclusion is satisfying, some problems are solved while others are only beginning.  Such is life and family.


I recommend The Red House for fans of Peter Orner’s Love and Shame and Love and Lou Beach’s 420 Characters.

Mark Haddon

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Filed under book review, books, fiction