A Modern Pilgrim

A few weeks ago, I was lent a friend´s e-book reader. We have done this before, as some e-books can´t be lent to other´s readers, at least not in a way that us old ladies can figure out. The book she had recommended for me was "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce. I had never heard of it, or the author before. The first few pages didn´t woe me, but when my friend said, almost apologetically, that "it get´s a bit new age-y in the middle", that made me more determined, being in a rather spiritual mood. In the end, I read it in what was pretty much one sitting, that lasted two days.

Joyce is mainly a dramatist, and the story of Harold Fry was originally an afternoon play for BBC Radio 4, broadcast in 2010. It was then turned into her first novel, published 2012. It has the structure of a serial, with chapters that work almost as short stories, with proper titles and each one a small, separate adventure on this journey of Harold´s. The language is beautiful, clean and plain in a way that made an impression on me from the first page. I imagine it is like this because it is meant to be read out loud.

Harold Fry, the hero, is a recently retired salesman in Kingsbridge, Devon, who one day recieves a letter from Queenie, a woman he worked with twenty years earlier. She writes that she has cancer, and wants to give him a last greeting before she dies. He writes a response and tells his wife Maureen he is taking a walk to the mailbox. But when he gets there, he can´t bring himself to post it. So he goes on to the next mailbox. Same thing, so he goes to the next one. After a few hours he is almost out of Kingsbridge and goes to a garage to get something to eat. A young girl heats a meal for him and says something about an aunt of hers having had cancer, but "you must believe" or some such thing. Harold then decides to call Queenie where she is, at a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and when he speaks to the nurse (Queenie is asleep, she says, and can´t come to the phone):
 "Small clouds sent shadows scurrying across the land. The light was smoky over the distant hills, not with the dusk but with the map of space that lay ahead. He pictured Queenie dozing at one end of England and himself in a phone box at the other, with things in between that he didn´t know and could only imagine: roads, fields, rivers, woods, moors, peaks and valleys, and so many people. He would meet and pass them all. There was no deliberation, no reasoning. The decision came in the same moment as the idea. He was laughing at the simplicity of it. 
"Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living. Will you say that?""

That´s how it all begins, and what follows is a journey where Harold, on foot, in a pair of sailing shoes, crosses the entirety of England to get to his friend. His wife, of course, thinks he has lost his mind. But things start to happen to her as well. And after a while, we realize that not all is well in Harold´s life and marriage. What, and how it develops, would not be fair of me to say, but the story plays out like a classical Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, where Harold encounters figures of mythology and classic literature, like oracles, helpers, sages, tempters, discouragers, sirens, ghosts of the past, fellow searchers and pilgrims. Some days he is walking through hell, other days he is in heaven. He gains faith, and looses it again. No doubt, you could write a lengthy essay on this book. Or several lengthy essays, in fields like literature, psychology, and theology. No name a few. It would be an excellent choice for a reading circle.

It´s a cryer. I have read books ("Uncle Tom´s Cabin" comes to mind) that made me cry before, but no book ever made me cry like this one. Really, if you decide read it, have a fresh box of tissues at hand. It really got to me, and I am rather cynical usually, or I used to be, anyway. That said, it´s not a depressing story at all, it´s on the contrary very uplifting. A feel-good-er. Harold does, in a way, save Queenie. He saves himself as well, and more. What a great movie it would make. Tom Courtenay would be great as Harold. A bit short, but great.

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