Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I was hoarding my birthday money...well, half of it, anyway.  It came in the form of two American Express gift cards.  One of them I gave away (it was a good cause).  The other one I held on to for quite a while.  I savored how I'd spend it.  I knew it was probably going to be spent at Barnes & Noble, but on what?  There were several cookbooks I wanted, so maybe one on Chinese cooking...or Thai?  Or maybe an armful of paperbacks?  Or a new writing instrument.  Stationery perhaps.  I spent several lunch hours making mental notes and picking things up and turning them over.  It wouldn't do to simply jump in and grab the first shiny object.  I took my time. My birthday only comes once a year, after all.  I reasoned there might - probably would - be a long, dry season before another gift card came my way.   Yes, I realize it's just money...but a gift card, to be spent anywhere on anything, has a special glow to it, don't you agree?  A special promise...a possibility.  And, of course, it brings free stuff.

On one of these reconnaissance missions, I came across a table with new titles at 20% off.  Hilary Mantel's new one, Bring Up The Bodies, was there.  It had a nice heft to it and I quickly calculated that there were lots of pages per dollar making it a pretty good investment.  But I am already on the waiting list at the library for that title.  I'm number 13, of course, but nevertheless I figure if I'm patient my day will come...let's see...January 2014 maybe?  But that's without renewals.  Considering its length, I can probably count on lots of renewals.  January 2014 might even be optimistic since the book is "on order."  So, they don't even have it yet, which means the first person on the list isn't reading it yet.  Considering that, I guess I should stop being angry at how slow he or she is reading.  There were only two copies ordered for the entire library system.    

Also on the table was a colorful display of The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, a first novel by Rachel Joyce.  The price was right because, with 20% off, I could still get a packet of magnetic book markers with my gift money.  I took both books to a comfy chair and started to read Harold Fry and within five minutes I knew I couldn't leave Barnes & Noble without it.  Triumphant, I presented the book and a set of eight Celtic bookmarks to the clerk.  (NB:  the bookmarks are yet another wonderful invention I did not invent.  The list of great ideas that weren't mine continues to grow.  The bookmarks clip over the page marking the exact line where you should begin again.  And they don't fall off and land between the seat cushions in the car when you are stopped at a red light and think you can sneak in an extra minute or two, or are running for the front door in the rain juggling an umbrella, a book, four bags of groceries, a purse and a briefcase, or when you trip on a crack in the sidewalk and, like a remake of "Goofy Goes Skiing,"  go air borne while trying to hold down your skirt but loosing the book you're carrying which then lands 10 feet away into the mud.  Even then, the bookmarks stick.  I've tested this theory personally, so I can sign an affidavit attesting to it.  They obediently sit where they are placed...even in hurricane force winds.  Okay...I have not actually tested them in hurricane force winds but I do have faith in their tenacity.  It isn't beyond the scope of possibility that I could have invented them, though, considering that when I was 8 years old I "invented" panty hose...I didn't act on that light-bulb moment regretfully;  I was probably too young to get the patent anyway.  I'll leave that story for another time.)

Harold Fry has retired from a brewery.  He lives a quiet and sad life in a small English village with his wife Maureen, who suffers through a constant irritation with him and everything he does.  One day, included in the "quotidian minutiae" (don't you love that phrase) of the morning mail a letter arrives from Queenie Hennessy, a woman with whom Harold worked at the brewery.  He hadn't seen nor had he thought of her in over twenty years.   They had been friendly acquaintances, but nothing more.  She is dying of cancer in a nursing home in Berwick-upon-Tweed, she explains, and is writing to say good-bye.  

Harold writes a quick and unsentimental reply and heads off to the nearest mail box wearing his light coat and a pair of yachting shoes.   He passes the first mail box, and then the second, but he continues to walk.   As long as he walks, Queenie will live, and so his odyssey to reach Berwick-Upon-Tweed begins.  

The writing is beautiful and thought provoking:

He remembered his father in the nursing home, and his mother's suitcase by the door.  And now here was a woman who twenty years ago had proved herself a friend.  Was this how it went?  That just at the moment when he wanted to do something, it was too late?  That all the pieces of a life must eventually be surrendered, as if in truth they amounted to nothing?
Along the way, Harold encounters challenges and characters, each of which help unlock memories and free a spirit long squelched, and the reader walks along with him cheering for him to succeed.  Early on in my reading of the novel I wrote in my book journal ("Why walk?  Why doesn't he take the quickest way to get there?)  But, of course, the question was soon answered:

In walking, he freed the past that he had spent twenty years seeking to avoid, and now it chattered and played through his head with a wild energy that was his own.  He no longer saw distance in terms of miles.  He measured it with his remembering.
This novel is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize, something I did not know when I picked it up at the book store.  I am not surprised.  I can say with great satisfaction that my birthday money was well spent; I simply loved it.  In reading this novel I was reminded that whatever the destination upon which we set our course, it is the journey itself that really counts...and I never lost my place.


  1. Have a gift card you can spend on anything is an absolutely exquisite feeling! It sounds like you made a marvelous choice. I will add the book to my TBR and I will have to look for those bookmarkers next time I go to B&N!

  2. Stefanie, I had to edit this post. It's on the Man Booker long list. I don't generally follow prize lists, but I'm going to try to read the ones I can get my hands on. I often do not like what the critics do like. I have also gone back to B&N for more book markers - ones with Japanese symbols. Might as well keep up the international theme.

  3. You always turn up the most interesting books! I have to admit that gift cards make me nervous, mostly because I almost always manage to lose them. Then I feel guilty. Sigh....

  4. Tinky, I live in fear of losing gift cards, but the truth is, I almost always find a reason to give them away. Which makes me feel a combination of good (doing something for someone else) and bad (I wanted to use that card for something special.) I have a B&N Mastercard and when I spend "x" amount of dollars on stuff, I get a $25 gift card as a "reward." I have yet to use one of them myself, but I have made a vow to myself that I'll use the next one right away so it will be gone and I won't have to wrestle with my conscience. I think you would love this book.

  5. I adore gift cards - my only complaint is that they don't turn up regularly enough! :-) But thank you for this lovely review, Grad, I am sold! This sounds like a fascinating book and a beautifully written one.

  6. Sorry to be so shallow, but it sounds like such a somber book (are some things too sad to think about? they ought not be, but it seems like it): anyway, I smiled at the reference to Goofy!

  7. Litlove, it was one of the best I've read this year. Well worth the time.

    Shelley, it isn't at all somber, although it deals with some very deep and disquieting subjects. It is actually very hopeful. The unhappiness in Harold's life actually came from not thinking about those things. The walk made him think about them, face them, and in the the end you'll have to see for yourself because I'm hoping you'll give it a try.