We are all at different stages on the road of life, some near the end, others at the beginning, a few of us in the middle and some stuck not knowing where to go next. Then there are the real journeys we take every day, like the commute to and from work, the journey on the road to recovery from illness. Then there’s the journey’s we want to do when we retire or take a career break, such as going on a cruise, travelling round Australia or walking the Camino Way. Now that’s something I have on my Bucket List.
Then there are the Pilgrimages – religious journeys to places like Lourdes, Mecca or Sri Pada. Then there’s the personal
pilgrimages, as was the case in June last year when D-Day veteran Bernard Jordan, who after being told by staff at his care home in England that he couldn’t attend the 70th anniversary memorial services in Normandy. Snuck out and made his own way there. Mr. Jordan sadly died at the beginning of January. This brings us on to this month’s book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.
Harold is on a pilgrimage too, just like Bernard Jordan. One morning in his home in Devon Harold receives a letter from a woman he used to work with, but hasn’t seen or heard from in about 20 years. Its postal address is a hospice in Berwick – on – Tweed, at the other end of the country. Queenie Hennessy is dying of cancer, she just wants to say goodbye. Harold writes a letter back to her and walks to the end of the road to the post-box, but then he decides to walk to the next one and then the one after and before long he’s phoned the hospice and asked them to tell Queenie not too die, as he walking to her. But Harold is not dressed for a 627 mile hike; he’s wearing loafers on his feet, ordinary trousers, a shirt and a windcheater. He has no mobile phone or compass, all he knows is that he must walk to save Queenie, because he owes her.
On this impromptu mission of mercy, he meets a wide and varied cross section of British life; he also becomes an accidental hero and a celebrity, a modern day prophet of sorts with a group of followers and not forgetting a dog he befriends along the way too. But then there’s Maureen, Harold’s wife. Their marriage has grown stale; they’re just living together because it’s the easiest thing to do. Maureen’s also on a journey but at least she has their son David. But what will happen when and if Harold reaches Scotland? Will he come home? Will he and David reconcile? Will Harold save Queenie?
From the moment I picked this book up I knew I’d like it, you will too. The story telling is rich, helped greatly by the excellent Illustrations that form a masthead for every chapter, as well as the description of everyday British life which are picture perfect, even the uniqueness of things like Maureen having to get out her driving shoes. Who still has driving shoes? To me it’s a generational thing; I don’t think any of my generation would own a pair of driving shoes, owning slippers is stigma enough. A sign you’re getting into your dotage, although if you are fastidiously tidy and house proud you might slip into a pair when you walk through the door, but personally I think a thirty-fifty something person answering their door in slippers is a bit odd.
As with Harold, you can almost feel yourself walk every step with him, as well as feel his pain from the multitude of blisters and the aches and pains a man unused to walking any distance let alone 20-30 miles a day, whose also in his sixties would feel. If you saw the recent Channel Four documentary, “Walking the Nile” with the explorer Levinson Wood and the state his feet got into and he was wearing the correct footwear, you don’t need much help from Rachel Joyce’s descriptions to imagine how bad Harold’s get and he’s only wearing “Boating Shoes” or “Dubes” as they are referred to on the Southside of Dublin, after the manufacturer Dubarry.
The story itself poses quite a few questions all the way through, this is one of the many reasons you are compelled to go on this journey with Harold. They become quite apparent after a while and are beautifully resolved near the end. Things like what does he owe a woman he hasn’t spoken to in 20 years that he feels compelled to set out on a walk of this magnitude on a whim? Why he and Maureen are sleeping in separate rooms? What caused the split between him and his son David?
Then of course there’s the big question, will he actually save Queenie? How sick is she really? All we’re told is that she has cancer. But due to medical advances, not all cancers have the finality hanging over them that they once did. On the other hand I did find myself hoping that she survives, because I’d grown to love Queenie, thanks to Joyce’s depiction of her and how she and Harold met when she joined the Brewery, working as an accountant under their misogynistic boss “Napier”. How they regularly travelled the country together visiting pubs. the way Queenie complemented the loner Harold on his car and the way she dressed and carried herself. This even gets you wondering was there something going on between them…
This is English author Rachel Joyce’s www.rachel-joyce.co.uk first book, but Since being first published in 2012 by Doubleday, she has now written three. The second called “Perfect” and as I write this review her third a sequel to this one called “The Love Song of Ms Queenie Hennessy” was published in late 2014 and is now on the bookshelves. Apart from that she has written over twenty original radio plays for BBC radio four and is a former actress with the world renowned Royal Shakespeare Company.
The book is crammed full of character and characters, from the girl serving behind the counter at a petrol station, to the Eastern European doctor who can’t get her qualifications recognized, so works as a cleaner. Plus the bedraggled group of followers who join him half way along his trek and start to disrupt and takeover Harold’s pilgrimage, they too, like Harold are on a journey to find themselves. The only characters in the book who don’t seem to give too much of their story away or at least leave you wondering what their journey is, are the charming dog who tags along with him then just as quickly leaves him for a little girl at a bus stop and Harold and Maureen’s widowed next door neighbour Rex. Then there’s Queenie who is waiting mysteriously in a Scottish hospice, you really want to know where’s she’s been for the past two decades.
So if you have a journey to make and want something emotional, heart-warming and engrossing to pass the time or if you just need to delve into a really good book, throw this in the case, pick up a copy from your local book store or download it for the kindle. Because this is the best way to kick start a great year of reading ahead.
Finally, while I read the book there was a song that stuck in my head and had me humming it constantly, not not the Persuaders “I Will walk 500 Miles“, but Oleta Adams “Get Here”…