“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce

Harold FryWikipedia tells us that this was the author’s first novel, yet was a long-list finalist (top 12) for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and was the best-selling hardback book in the UK from a new novelist in that year.

The plot concerns the eponymous Harold Fry, aged 65, and who is cutting the lawn outside his home in Devon when he receives a letter. A former colleague has cancer and is now in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold’s first response is to writes her a feeble and brief note but when he goes to post it, he has second thoughts, and walks to the next post box, and the next. He phones the hospice from a call box and leaves a message to say that he is coming and she should wait, stay alive while he makes the journey. The book then continues to describe Harold’s unplanned, meandering and rather chaotic journey, its impact upon Harold, his wife back home, and the public at large. On the way, Harold meets a variety of characters who each influence him in different ways. He also reflects upon his life:  seemingly quiet and unassuming, Harold’s history includes a number of significant events that he has not yet fully acknowledged or understood.

 The author has written in the Daily Telegraph about both her inspirations and writing methods. It’s an honest, touching and funny article: the same qualities as demonstrated in the book itself. She reveals that the book’s origins were in a radio play, that it was inspired in part by her father dying of cancer, and that her process of mapping out the route involved tearing out pages from family road atlas… resulting in her partner becoming lost outside Bath! 

We read this in March 2014 and 11 members gathered to discuss the book. Most of us enjoyed it and on the whole it was felt to be a light read. One reader thought that it didn’t have enough material for a novel and would have been better as a short story, whilst another argued that there was more depth to the story than we appreciated.

Two of us thought that the novel was very observant and accurate over small details but some felt that quite a few details of the walk itself (such as the shoes) were quite unrealistic.

We agreed that the book was quite funny and with one exception, everyone gave this a score above 5. The average score from 11 readers was 7.2.

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