As you know, lately I’ve been doing a bit of walking. On Sunday I did fourteen and a half miles, which I thought was quite a lot. Then I started reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, and had to reconsider. The book was recommended by Amazon because I read The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, which, as you may remember, I liked quite a lot.
I can see why Amazon pointed it out to me. On the surface, the two novels are quite similar, with the central character, an older gentleman, embarking on an unexpected and unusual journey. But whereas The Hundred Year Old Man is pure joy from start to finish, Harold Fry had me laughing one minute and crying my eyes out the next (I’m such a cry baby these days). It’s not an action-packed story, but it has its own kind of suspense – I didn’t see how there could be a happy ending, but I was still really hoping there would be, which I guess is the whole point.
Harold is retired, and living unhappily and uneventfully in Devon, with his wife, Maureen. One day he gets a letter from Queenie Hennessey, an old friend, and learns that she’s dying of cancer. Harold sets out to post a reply, but instead of stopping at the post box, he keeps walking, in the belief that if he can walk from his home in Kingsbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed (over 600 miles), he can save her.
What follows is a story about faith; it’s about believing that no matter what you have or haven’t done in the past, and whatever mistakes you’ve made, it’s never too late to make amends, or to do something that matters. And it doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering – it could be as simple as going for a walk to see an old friend. An idea that starts out as something very personal soon takes on a life of its own as Harold meets more people along the way. Not because any of them know him or Maureen or Queenie, or understand his motivations, but because everyone has their own private demons and Harold’s journey gives them hope that they can overcome them and move on.
Just like Allan in the The Hundred Year Old Man, I loved Harold from the start. His mission is crazy – we all know you can’t save someone from cancer just by walking – but his enthusiasm and belief, even in the face of ridicule, are infectious. But at the same time he’s very human and like everyone, his faith sometimes wavers. I found myself willing him on; I even had to remind myself a couple of times that he wasn’t a real person.
And let’s not forget Maureen, left behind by a husband who’s walking the length of the country to see another woman. You can’t help but feel sorry for her, even as she tries to discourage Harold from his plan. It’s easy to assume all their marital problems are Maureen’s fault, but it soon becomes clear that’s not entirely true and in the end, I cared just as much about her as I did about Harold and Queenie.
I’m not suggesting we should all get up and start walking the length of the country. For one thing, fourteen and a half miles was quite far enough, thank you very much. But what I think we can learn from Harold is the importance of believing in something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a religion; Harold’s quite clear about his lack of religious faith, but that doesn’t stop him knowing he can make it. So maybe, at the end of the day, all we really need is to believe in ourselves.
“You got up, and you did something. And if trying to find a way when you don’t even know you can get there isn’t a small miracle, then I don’t know what is.” The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce