“Ms. Joyce is blessed with a sharp eye for detail . . . she carefully unfolds Harold’s inner journey as his hardened emotional shell begins to crack.”
A pilgrimage, by definition, is a journey to a sacred place. When Harold Fry, the hero of Rachel Joyce’s first novel, steps out the door of his cottage on the southwest coast of England, the journey that occupies the next 300 pages is unlikely in the most literal sense, for Harold isn’t heading for anyplace sacred, but for Berwick-upon-Tweed, 600 miles away on Britain’s northeast coast.
But that is only the first challenge that Ms. Joyce successfully meets in her story of forgiveness and redemption as she sets the elderly, taciturn, and emotionally repressed Harold on his plodding trek to a hospice where a woman he hasn’t seen for 20 years is dying of cancer.
Ms. Joyce, who originally framed her story as a radio play for the BBC, writes flowing, graceful prose that occasionally rises to the elegiac as she follows Harold on his diagonal walk across Britain wearing flimsy boat shoes and carrying a plastic bag with the few provisions he picks up along the way.
Left behind is a marriage to Maureen grown sterile for reasons Ms. Joyce will reveal slowly, and lying ahead at the end of his path is Queenie Hennessy, with whom Harold once worked and who has sent a short note informing Harold of her terminal illness and her fond remembrances of past friendship.
“Will you be long?” Maureen asks as Harold steps out the door to mail a sympathetic reply to Queenie. And it is further to Ms. Joyce’s credit that she makes Harold’s decision to keep walking past the post office and on to Berwick entirely believable, and that this second challenge of writing a full-length novel simply about a man walking is equally well-met.
Ms. Joyce is blessed with a sharp eye for detail and vividly describes the landscapes through which Harold passes, the plants and flowers stretching to springtime life which Harold begins to know by sight, and the cast of characters that help send Harold on his way as he trudges through village squares and busy urban centers.
Equally admirably, she carefully unfolds Harold’s inner journey as his hardened emotional shell begins to crack.
To sustain her readers’ interest, however, Ms. Joyce resorts to melodramatic teasing pointing to a Big Secret that will be revealed if only we, like Harold, will keep on to the end of the journey. There are actually two, related Big Secrets Ms. Joyce intends to uncover, one of which will be apparent to many readers early on and both of which require her to ratchet up the narrative temperature, nearly to the boiling point.
For late in the book she gradually introduces chapters from Maureen’s point of view. Maureen, like Harold, is nursing an old, still bleeding wound. While serving Ms. Joyce’s plot, Maureen’s inner turmoil added to Harold’s begins to tip the story toward soap opera.
Nonetheless, Ms. Joyce has a few surprises up her sleeve.
Harold’s meeting with Queenie at the end of the book is not what Harold, or the reader, is expecting. His growing reputation as a folk hero joined on his walk by his own entourage of eccentrics, including a man wearing a gorilla suit, provides Ms. Joyce with a chance for some social satire.
The author’s gifts as a writer of prose become poignantly evident when she describes the last breaths of one character embarking on the journey we all must take sooner or later.
“He had started something and he didn’t know what it was,” Ms. Joyce writes early in Harold’s pilgrimage, “but now that he was doing it, he wasn’t ready to finish.”
Like Harold, Ms. Joyce keeps to her chosen road, completing her journey with perhaps a few bumps along the road but reaching her destination with good grace.