Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
(Random House, 2012)
Format: audio download from library (narrated by Jim Broadbent for Random House Audio)

From Goodreads: "Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live"

Harold's modern pilgrimage, a late-life crisis combined with a search for atonement, becomes a deep dive into the self, the kind that you emerge from a wholer, better person. Harold is a silent, steady type. He does what's expected, without expressing himself in much of any way, and has done so all his life. The few occasions where his emotions break out, he then buries, and it is only on this pilgrimage that he begins to see it all in a pattern, and to understand himself and his life. And Life, too, when you get right down to it. Nothing like spending hours per day heading north on foot, no cell phone, no change of clothes, only chance company, to get reflective.

It's easy to put yourself in Harold's increasingly-downtrodden shoes. And as he nears Queenie's hospice, and the story winds tighter and tighter around the moment of crisis that defined all of their lives, the quiet tension involved feels as momentous as a far bigger tragedy.

Jim Broadbent's quiet, clear, indefatigable narration is perfect for this novel. He makes me feel each step, the hills and the valleys, at times relentless and at times buoyant. I was so pleased by this pairing, because my mental image of Harold would have looked a heck of a lot like Broadbent, even without the aural clues.

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