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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (audio): first bit

haroldI can’t help but share with you my early reflections on this delightful tale – before I know everything. It will be interesting to see how my perspective or feelings change later on. Here, I’m about 1/3 of the way through.

What an oddly charming, quirky story. Harold Fry has retired from his 45-year career working quietly for a brewery (although he is a teetotaler) and now stays home with his wife Maureen. She cleans – constantly – and criticizes him, and he mows the lawn. He does not speak with their only son, David. One morning he gets a letter from an old friend, a former coworker named Queenie. She is writing from a hospice to say goodbye: she has cancer. Harold jots a quick note to say “sorry about that, old girl” or similar, and although he feels its insufficiency, sets off right then to post it from the box at the end of the road.

But when Harold gets to the end of the road, he can’t quite mail his letter, because it is of course a sadly inappropriate thing to do for Queenie; so he keeps walking. He tells himself he’ll mail it from the next postbox; and he does this at a great number of boxes, before he stops in at a garage for a snack. The girl there shows him how to heat up a hamburger in a microwave, which amazes him (“it even had gherkins!” he will later report to Maureen) and tells him the inspirational story of her aunt who had cancer: the girl willed her to get better, because if you believe (she tells Harold) you can do anything.

It is not too long after this conversation that Harold decides he will walk to visit Queenie at the hospice facility, and commands her to live until he gets there. It’s not clear how far this walk will be – someone he encounters guesses it might be 500 miles, but at any rate it’s very far, and he’s wearing his yacht shoes and as Maureen is quick to point out, he’s never walked further than to the car. He is, in fact, endeavoring to walk the length of England.

I hope you see what an endearingly strange story this is. Harold himself is poignantly, almost painfully shy and insecure; he’s not accustomed to being around people, and as he and Maureen each note separately in the opening pages, “it was not like Harold to make a snap decision.” There’s a lot we still don’t know. I suspect that there was an event in Harold and Maureen’s marriage where things soured suddenly, decisively; if I’m right, that information is clearly being withheld. Their son David won’t visit, and he and Harold don’t speak; if there is a reason other than general teenage impatience with his parents (and he is no longer a teen, so…) then likewise we haven’t learned it yet. And I can see plainly that Harold’s history with Queenie has a story to it – and presumably their parting of ways, and their failure to keep in touch? Oh – and I wonder if Harold has always been a non-drinker, or if there is some traumatic history that has led to his sobriety. There is a line in which Maureen worries about him being in a pub… I just wonder. These are the informational nuggets I am being teased with at present. Harold’s childhood is just beginning to unfold, so I think I can see Joyce’s strategy of allowing these things to be dragged out of her story sooo…. slooowly… and I like it.

Narrator Jim Broadbent has an excellent ear for Harold’s voice (sort of ponderous) and the pacing required for this humor to play properly; I approve heartily.

Stay tuned!

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