Harold Fry is one of those men whose life has never amounted to much. He’s no more likely to suddenly start to walk from one end of England to the other, than he is to tell his boss at the brewery what he really thinks of his obnoxious behaviour to female staff.
And yet that’s exactly what he does. Opening a letter at breakfast one morning six months into his retirement, he learns that a former colleague is at dying from cancer at a hospice in Berwick on Tweed. He writes the blandest of responses and heads to the post box to catch the collection, except when he gets there he finds he can’t post it because the words he has written are insufficient for what he really feels. He walks to the next box and the next and before he realises, he has been out for hours and is hungry. At a petrol station, an encounter with the assistant gives him the idea that he can do more for his friend than write – he can walk to see her. And by walking, he will keep her alive.
Dressed in deck shoes, shirt, tie, and waterproof jacket but without compass or map and only a vague idea of where Berwick is, he begins to walk the 600 miles or so from his home in Devon.
Humour shines through the opening chapters of this book through the incongruity of who Harold is and his touching belief in what he can accomplish. While the humour never disappears, it’s shot through with poignant moments as Harold recollects episodes from his life. He remembers everything that ‘might have been’ and how its all gone wrong. His wife Maureen, has changed from a long dark haired girl with whom he shared jokes, into a sharp-tongued harridan – now. After 47 years of marriage, they live as strangers in a home where the air is thick with recriminations. Harold and his son David are also strangers – Maureen is the only one who talks to him.
Harold’s inward journey is painful but yet it leaves him transformed.
“The abundance of new life was enough to make him giddy……. England opened beneath his feet, and the feeling of freedom, of pushing into the unknown, was so exhilarating he had to smile. He was in the world by himself and nothing could get in the way or ask him to mow the lawn.”
The plot is quite a simple one and is narrated simply. There are no long descriptive passages or extensive meditations on the meaning of life. But it’s never twee because Rachel Joyce cleverly counter balances the poignant moments and the humourous ones to deliver a delightfully quirky book. It’s a story very much about the renewal of hope and reflection of how easily we lose our way and how much courage it can take to find it again.
This is Rachel Joyce’s first novel although she has enjoyed a successful career first as an actress and then as a playwright for radio. Getting long listed for the Booker Prize is quite an achievement for a first novel although I don’t think she’ll get the prize. Nevertheless I would rate it as one of the best books I’ve read this year .