The debut novel from Rachel Joyce, who’s written many radio plays and the odd TV adaptation, was something of a sensation when it was published last year. Glowing reviews poured in, it ended up on the longlist for the Booker Prize, suddenly everyone was talking about Harold Fry.
Initially, I was reluctant to read it. Not because it sounded rubbish or anything, but because it all struck a little too close to home. My father lost his battle to cancer just 8 months ago, several years earlier than he should have done. So did I really want to read a book that deals so closely with that subject? Turns out, I did. And what a wonderful read it was.
Harold Fry, unwanted as a child, unfulfilled as an adult, is lonely. Retired and stuck in a loveless marriage, one day he receives a letter out of the blue from an old work colleague he hasn’t thought of in years. The wonderfully named Queenie Hennessy is dying of cancer in a hospice and wanted to contact Harold to say goodbye. Harold writes a response and goes out to post it. A chance conversation makes him decide to walk to the hospice and see Queenie instead. Only problem there is the hospice is 627 miles away. Harold has no phone, no map, no change of clothes and no overall plan. But he’s convinced Queenie will live if he walks, and so he walks.
And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage. Along his journey, Harold meets a huge array of characters, becomes a media sensation, attracts a following, loses his mind and generally has QUITE a time of things. But all that is merely window dressing for what is really a memory novel. As he walks, Harold reflects on his whole life, from his parental abandonment, his job at a brewery, through to his marriage, his son and the events which drove a wedge between him and his frosty wife Maureen.
This is a beautifully written and utterly absorbing book, which could have been a terribly mawkish sentimental misfire in less skilled hands. Harold’s moving history unfolds in bits and pieces as his story moves forward at an ever increasing pace. When all the gaps are filled in and his pilgrimage is complete, it would be a very hard heart indeed that won’t crack just a little bit. Overwhelmingly emotional, quite beautiful and ultimately uplifting, this is absolutely worth every single one of the plaudits afforded it.