A pilgrimage I am very unlikely to take…I am certain.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry
Harold Fry, a retiree, husband, and father, receives an unexpected letter from a former colleague who worked with him at a local brewery years earlier. Queenie writes that she is dying of cancer in a hospice in northern England.
As Harold is about to post his response to the letter, his short walk to the mail box is transformed into a 600 mile trek to actually visit with Queenie. His seemingly simple and mundane reply takes on a whole new life by the time he reaches the mail box. He write that he hopes Queenie lives till he arrives at St. Bernadine’s Hospice and the ‘pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ begins.
Joyce’s fourth novel, a second involving Harold and Queenie, is a thought provoker. The reader cannot help but examine, assess and analyze their own life as Harold examines his on his pilgrimage. Along the way, Harold meets a variety of people, many of whom would be ignored by people in general. Harold’s walk transforms him from a tired, dissipated, emotionally wan and spent senior into a spiritually energized and more aware man. He becomes much more aware of people enroute. He becomes more reflective of their troubles, their illnesses and their loneliness. He becomes very conscious of their value realizing that many people from whom others would expect nothing or would be seen as having nothing of value to give, are worth much more and can teach us more than we realize. Harold begins to see these people as having real worth and as being of benefit to everyone. Sometimes the value he gleaned was in the form of words of reassurance, verbal encouragement to plod on, sometimes it came as physical assistance when he was hungry, thirsty, or exhausted. The people he met along the way became unexpectedly valuable as motivation to continue the pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage affords Harold much time to consider other facets of his life: his relationship with his wife, one which has become emotionless and dispassionate because of an event relating to his son, David, changes. His wife, Maureen, has erected a bulwark of resentment and animosity toward her husband. Maybe even hatred and loathing. Harold recognizes the depths to which his marital relationship has sunk and as he walks, he becomes increasingly despondent and depressed about it.
Harold examines other aspects of his life further as he walks. He analyzes his relationships with his son, with his alcoholic father and again, with his alienated wife. Through a mental prism of reminiscing, remembering and recall, he continually reassesses his levels of guilt and culpability in what he feels have been many failed relationships in his life.
As he walks, he keeps hoping and praying for Queenie to hold on and keep living as she waits for his arrival.
The story starts very slowly, as does Harold’s walk. Many a reader may be bored with the story’s snail-like development, particularly if they are accustomed to faster paced reads, more action and more lively and dramatic incidents. However, this may be Joyce’s canny strategy to draw the reader into the story, slowly, steadily, tempting and tantalizing the reader with a slug’s pace, pulling the reader ever more deeply into the story but does it so the reader is unaware how their own mind begins its own involuntary journey of self-examination.
Every adult reader will unexpectedly relate or connect with Harold. Each has a regret somewhere in their past, a regretful incident, a failed relationship, a faded friendship, a disastrous business affiliation. Harold’s reminiscences will re-awaken these memories.
Like the pilgrimage, the reader’s resurrected memories may be difficult, dismaying and disruptive. Readers are unlikely to find comfort or solace in revisiting past regrets. As the story and pilgrimage develop and progress, Harold reviews the past repeatedly, turning and twisting it to reveal a new aspect, a new view, like rotating a Rubik’s cube in order to reveal new solution possibilities to the puzzle displays.
The strengths and the flaws
Readers with botanical interests will enjoy the Joyce’s detailed descriptions of the English countryside. Because I was reading the book on a tablet, I found it particularly entertaining to be able to flip back and forth between a map of England and the novel plotting the pilgrimage’s progress, village by village, town to town, each a new milestone. As he walked northward, the imminent meeting with Queenie became more exciting and headier with anticipation. The things above can be bittersweet facets to the reading the novel. Those with no interest in vegetation, greenery and countryside may be bored with Harold’s detailed descriptions and his repeated cautionary notes relating to eating mushrooms can become tedious. Then too, one must remember, our protagonist is walking. Hence, the novel’s pace must intentionally be slow.
Readers without access to or interest in geographic feedback via electronic device applications such as Gmaps, would likely derive little satisfaction if such access were available to them.
As a reader would expect, Joyce is painstaking in polishing her writing. Her descriptions are detailed and accurate. Her analyses of people and Harold’s encounters are deep and profound. The seemingly mundane, she hones to a cutting edge sharpness. Her writing is poignant and emotional. The reader who refuses to free their imagination, their real world fetters, will not fly Joyce’s lofty skies of heart-break and emotional turmoil. However, letting go, the reader’s emotional persona will be freed to laugh, to cry, to empathize and to feel throughout the novel.
Joyce’s novel is more of a psychological and emotional self-examination if the reader is willing to permit themselves to be manipulated this way. Such an exercise may be a cathartic and liberating for some; others may find it uncomfortable and be more resistant to letting themselves go in this way.
Many people read to learn, about themselves, about their own relationships and about their lives. For these people, Joyce’s novel is a portal to introspection and self-questioning, maybe a heavy personal oeuvre.
The novel is a serious deviation for readers who read to escape and to be entertained. It may be far from such, unsatisfying and maybe even disconcerting. This story is not frivolous and light verbal entertainment. It exceeds the level of being an adult comic book.
I read for entertainment and escapism, not self-analysis and introspective reflection. Hence, I would pass on reading this book.