THE pull of the pilgrimage seems to be hard-wired into the human
psyche. People have always gone on journeys in search of spiritual
enlightenment. And if ever an experience was all about the journey
rather than the destination, and the encounters along the way
rather than the end, this is the pilgrim's raison
So it is hardly surprising that pilgrimage has provided such a
rich seam of material for the storyteller, from The Canterbury
Tales to The Pilgrim's Progress. Surprisingly,
perhaps, pilgrimage is as popular as ever, to the point where some
famous routes are becoming unappealingly crowded.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, then, treads in
well-trodden footsteps, and at the same time is very "now" in its
appeal. A first novel, it began life as a radio play, written in
tribute to the author's father, who was dying of cancer, and taps
into the yearning for something, at those periods of
profound emotion which are an inescapable part of the human
The title made it on to last year's Man Booker long-list, and
became a bestseller, and it is not hard to see why. A sweet and
moving story - which avoids being saccharine by virtue of the
author's sharp ear for dialogue - it clearly resonated with huge
numbers of readers.
The story opens when Harold Fry, a timid man who has recently
retired from an unremarkable career, receives a letter from a
former colleague, Queenie, who writes that she is dying of cancer.
Distressed, Harold writes an inadequate letter of condolence, and
sets out for the postbox.
In the event, rather than post it, he just keeps walking - all
the way from his home in Devon to the hospice in
Berwick-upon-Tweed, where she lies dying. This is partly as a
result of a conversation with a girl in a petrol station, who says:
"You have to believe. That's what I think. It's not about medicine
and all that stuff. You have to believe a person can get better.
There is so much in the human mind we don't understand. But, you
see, if you have faith, you can do anything."
Not religious faith, she clarifies, just "trusting what you
don't know, and going for it". This becomes a touchstone for
Harold: although ill-equipped, he phones the hospice, and then
sends Queenie the first of many postcards, telling her that he is
on his way, and begging her to hang on. He believes that his act of
walking will keep Queenie alive.
The journey turns out to be transformative. Harold's encounters
as he walks with an array of fellow-travellers change his entire
outlook. He meets the unexpected kindness of strangers, and hears
extraordinary stories of other people's lives, as they unburden
themselves. When he bumps into a journalist, before he knows it a
host of unwanted companions have tracked him down in order to join
him on the road. An ill-assorted community of modern-day pilgrims
springs up, alternately supporting one another and bickering.
Harold's private journey becomes appropriated by others, and he
finds himself caught up in a media circus.
Most poignantly, the day he set out for the post, he left his
wife Maureen busy vacuuming (something she does with peculiar
determination). She is left furious, at first, and then bewildered
by his journey, which is, to say the least, as "unlikely" as the
title suggests. The layers of an unhappy marriage are gradually
unpeeled; and, as Harold progresses northwards, Maureen travels on
her own journey of discovery.
Each looks back over the small disappointments and greater grief
that have led from the promising early days of their relationship
to the desperate loneliness of the present, and each wonders
whether there is any way back.
Only at the very end of the book do we discover the unfinished
business between Queenie and Harold. (A publican tells him: "We've
all got things we wish we'd done, or hadn't. Good luck to you. I
hope you find the lady.")
Yet, although compelled to continue, even Harold struggles to
articulate what drives him; and, as he comes towards the end of the
journey, his fumbling sense of purpose begins to unravel. What did
he think he was achieving, he wonders, and was it all worth
In the end, of course, it turns out that the true gift of the
pilgrimage was something that neither Harold nor Maureen (nor the
reader) could have expected on the day he left home. And, as
Maureen says, "You got up, and you did something. And if trying to
find a way when you don't even know you can get there isn't a small
miracle, then I don't know what is."
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is
published by Black Swan/Transworld at £7.99 (CT Bookshop
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Some
"There are biblical overtones and elements of parable to
Harold's story" (Natasha Tripney, The Observer, 6
January). How far do you agree?
This is Joyce's first novel. Previously she has written
extensively for radio. Do you think this shows in the style in
which the novel is written?
Harold's passing encounters become significant for him. Have you
had conversations with strangers that have remained with you, and
made an impact on your life?
"He wished he had not grinned the night his son jived." How do
Harold's regrets affect him?
In a message that Harold leaves for Queenie, early in the book,
he says: "Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. . . I am going to save
her, you see." Where is salvation found in this novel?
"The abundance of new life was enough to make him giddy." How
did Harold's journey help him to see the world with new eyes?
How did Harold's journey change his relationship with
How did Harold respond to the attempts to make him a star?
What part is played by the countryside in Harold's story?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6
September, we will print extra information about the next book.
This is Burying the
Typewriter by Carmen
Bugan. It is published by Picador at £9.99 (CT
Bookshop £9 - Use code CT635 ); 978-1-447-21084-9.
Carmen Bugan was born in Romania in 1970, and suffered with her
family under the reign of Ceausescu. In 1989, she emigrated to the
United States, and studied literature and psychology at the
University of Michigan, later gaining an MA at Lancaster University
and a doctorate from Balliol College, Oxford. She has written two
collections of poems, and has contributed to a range of literary
publications. She now lives in Geneva with her husband and son.
Bugan's father was a minor political dissident in Ceausescu's
Romania. He wrote and distributed leaflets on an illegal
typewriter, which he buried in the garden each night. He escaped
censure until March 1983, when he held a one-man protest against
the regime in Bucharest, and was arrested and sentenced to ten
years' imprisonment. Bugan was 12 at the time. Burying the
Typewriter is her memoir of a childhood oppressed by the
Securitate, and the effects that her father's arrest, and later
release, had on her family.
Books for the next two months:
October: Unapologetic by
November: Toby's Room by Pat