Monday, August 6, 2012

Walking Through England with Harold Fry

I thought I had become rather jaded and inured to the emotional tug of most literature but playwright and author Rachel Joyce disabused me of that notion with her novel, recently added to the long list for the Man Booker Prize, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I feel compelled to share my admiration for this book with everyone I talk to. It's so original, not an easy thing when it seems that every new book that comes down the pike contains a variation on the same old theme.

Harold and Maureen Fry haven't touched one another, physically or emotionally, for twenty years. As the threads of their story slowly unspool we learn that there was a cataclysmic even that resulted in their estrangement and the inertia that has kept them from addressing it. Then one day a note on pale pink stationery, addressed to Harold, interupts their lives of quiet desperation.
It seems that an old friend and colleague from his working days is dying of cancer, being cared for in a Hospice in northern England. Queenie Hennessey has dictated a letter of goodbye.

This simple missive shakes Harold to his core. Memories and regret well up in him volcanically. Can he simply pen a neutral response of sympathy? In a completely uncharacteristic, "blink" moment of decision, Harold leaves home with nothing but the suit on his back, shod in an uncomfortable pair of boat shoes, to set out on the 600 mile trek across England to the Hospice in Berwick on Tweed, believeing inexplicably that Queenie will stay alive until he shows up.

Through the solitary act of placing one foot in front of the other, the days and weeks go by, the years fall away, and Harold reverts to the open, optimistic, caring young man he was when he first spotted Maureen across a crowded dance floor of giggling girls and won her over with hardly a word.

Maureen, for her part, is left behind to wonder if she will ever see Harold again. A woman who has kept her life so antiseptic, so empty of people or relationships, anything that would allow her to feel, Maureen's only conversations are between her and her son David. If Harold calls to check in with Maureen, keeping her apprised of his progress, she is clipped and resentful. The barriers between them seem insurmountable.

And yet, and yet......Rachel Joyce is such a generous, big hearted writer that we sense, we hope, there may be an epiphany, a light at the end of the tunnel, a means toward rapprochement. And so we walk with Harold, listening to his musings, fearing for his safety, rooting for Queenie, and remembering our own acts of intransigence and carelessness with friends, or lovers, perhaps family, recognizing the importance of forgiveness and the joy of making amends. This beautifully written book brought me to tears.

If you're interested there's a lovely interview with the author on the Diane Rehm show:


Andrea said...

Beautiful review, I must read this one!

Sallyb said...

Thanks Andrea, Cynthia said the same thing. I suspect it's right up her alley too. Lovely picture!