Our April reading suggestion is a first novel that is attracting an awful lot of interest at the moment – the story of a man whose staid and stolid retirement is interrupted by a bombshell of a letter, unlocking long-buried memories and sending him off on a life-changing journey.
Rachel Joyce spoke recently at Hitchin Library as part of the Litfest 12 event
The novel is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and the author is Rachel Joyce – the classical actor turned radio drama scriptwriter who has now turned her highly-versatile hand to novel-writing.
Harold Fry is an ordinary man living in an ordinary south coast town, enduring a marriage that long since lost its spark and subsided into dull routine. Any traces of the romance and hope that might have once lit up the relationship have long-since disappeared – along with any conscious memories of the events that snuffed them out.
Here’s a flavour of what happens to change all that, from the website of Joyce’s agent:
This is a story about a huge leap of faith. It is about hope and betrayal; love, loss and an unremarkable pair of yachting shoes. Above all, it is about the way we touch each other’s lives.
Since his retirement, sixty-five year old Harold Fry has done nothing but mow the lawn, and infuriate his wife by filling in the easy answers on her Telegraph crossword. Then an unexpected letter, postmarked Berwick upon Tweed, arrives from an old friend, Queenie, whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Queenie is dying of cancer.
When Harold sets out to post his reply he embarks on a journey that will change him beyond recognition. For Harold realises that simply posting a reply isn’t enough. He is going to walk, all 500 miles from Devon to Berwick. So long as he keeps walking, his friend Queenie must keep living. It is an impulsive, terrifying, beautiful and irrational act of faith made by a man who has spent most of his life in a chair.
On the way, Harold will meet people who will both alter his view of the world, and challenge him to remember the past he would rather forget. He will briefly become a national celebrity. He will give up his credit card, sleep in the wild, and almost lose his way altogether. But it is his awakened faith in the power of one human being to help another that is the heart of the book. As he confronts the mistakes and losses of his past, and the tragic secret at the heart of his marriage, Harold’s inner journey will prove as transformative as his physical one.
Left behind, Harold’s wife, Maureen, will also go on a journey. And what has begun as a story about two wasted lives becomes a celebration of a man on his feet.
More here – you can also listen to an excerpt read by actor Jim Broadbent in this video:
Some things to think about
What do you think about the relationship between the structure of the novel, which is built around Harold’s journey, and the narrative? Does one rely on the other? Can you describe how?
The term ‘picaresque’ in English fiction refers to “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road” [source]. Do you think that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry can be described as picaresque, or as having picaresque elements?
Some amateur reviewers have criticised the novel for having ‘obvious’ plot twists. Did you successfully predict what was going to happen? If so, did that damage the story for you – or was there a heightened sense of tragedy because you could see what the characters themselves couldn’t?
The novel is about Harold’s journeys, both physical and emotional. But what about Maureen’s? To what extent is her journey as unlikely and remarkable as Harold’s?
What is it about Harold’s fellow pilgrims that make them simultaneously so sympathetic and so revolting?
Does Harold save Queenie, or Queenie save Harold?
If you decide to read this, leave a comment and let others know what you made of it. You might find the questions helpful in framing your thoughts, or you might have something completely original to contribute. And you can also let others know about your comment via our virtual reading group which you can access from the right-hand column.