The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, a Booker long-listed debut novel.
Harold Fry is retired, but still as timid a man as he was in middle age. He replies to an unexpected letter from a former friend who is dying in a hospice. He sets out to post his reply, but finds himself simply going on walking...from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed. 600-miles away. Something someone said to him in a gas station makes him believes that in some way his journey will help his friend to live. He has nothing with him; he’s wearing yachting shoes, for goodness sake, and meanwhile, his wife Maureen is waiting for him to come home from posting the letter.
Joyce's narrative voice is simply done, reminding me, at times, of fellow long-lister and Jane Rodgers (who kindly endorsed my last children’s novel, Tough Luck). The novel is episodic and I did have trouble with they repetitive structure, but commend the writer on sticking to her guns, keeping Harold on his road and not having any form of extra subplots to entertain us. Sometimes the writing is almost twee, but always, just in time Joyce rarely sugar-coats thing shocks the narrative back out of a tendency to the anodyne, by hinting that Harold and his wife hold a secret, almost the same secret but kept from each other. We know their son has separated himself from their lives, and that he only speaks now, to his mother. As Harold’s journey continues, he finds himself walking through that story again, through it’s horrid loneliness, remembering his flaws and mistakes in life towards a kind of hope, while at home, Maureen is slowly waking to reality herself, and a new flowering of her half-dead heart is taking place.
My favourite parts of Harold’s journey are the descriptions of him finding his way through the sudden savage word (he sticks to roads because he’s a driver, but then, at the end, finds he can survive entirely without money within the wild countryside and posts his credit card home).
The final chapters deal unexpectedly savage blows. I did not think I would have handled the hospice scenes in the same way; but then I used to be a hospice nurse so I’m particularly sensitive to such things...I can’t watch Casualty ever! At the end, there is hope, and a good outcome, and celebration.