Man’s sudden journey opens up world of feelings

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 3, 2013

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” by Rachel Joyce, Random House. 320 pages. $25, hardcover. $15, paperback.

Harold Fry lives the numb existence of a retiree with few friends or hobbies and a less-than-indifferent wife. He’s the kind of person people pass on the street without notice. But in “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” he takes off on a journey that soon has all of England’s attention.
“The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday,” the novel begins. A long-ago colleague of Harold’s, Queenie Hennessey, is dying of cancer and writing to say good-bye. Two decades have passed since Harold and Queenie worked together, but her brief missive cracks open a door to emotions and memories he has shut away for years.
Harold pens a brief reply and sets out for the mailbox. With each step, the inadequacy of the perfunctory message becomes more obvious and shameful. His conscience tells him he must do more for Queenie, but what? He walks by mailbox after mailbox until he grasps at an offhand remark from a stranger — “You have to believe a person can get better.” Harold chooses his course of action, a heroic quest. He lives in southern England. To save Queenie, he decides, he must walk to her hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed — more than 600 miles away.
Starting right now.

In his boating shoes, wearing only a light jacket — and with his mobile phone left behind — Harold begins his trek on a January day. The journey turns out to be as deep in discovery and self-reflection as it is long in miles.
The author, former actress Rachel Joyce, had been writing radio screenplays, and she started Harold’s story as a play. But as the story developed, she says, she realized she had more to say.
The book includes a map of Harold’s trip, which winds its way up to the northernmost tip of England, On a Facebook page for the book, the reader can track the trip, month by month.
The publisher’s website also features a video, “A Conversation with Rachel Joyce,” in which the author explains that she started writing the story six years ago for her father, who was dying of cancer. He died before she finished it. She grittily pushed on, much like Harold, determined to reach what was for her an unprecedented goal — writing a book to completion.
“It’s about ordinary people having to deal with extraordinary things,” Joyce says of the story. Indeed, though Harold’s life appears bland and uneventful on the surface, deep passion and tragedy lurk below. Separately, he and his wife explore those feelings again as he plods along and she sits at home wondering what’s going on. The story moves toward much more than the mere physical goal of Queenie’s hospice.
Along with blisters and leg cramps, Harold encounters scores of characters along the way. His mission eventually attracts the attention of a local newspaper, and his story spreads, attracting a band of followers with its own peculiar dynamics.
Joyce was right to push on with this book. It has much to tell about the human heart and how the events and circumstances of life shape our perspectives — sometimes askew. Harold’s a better man than he allows himself to believe.