Rachel Joyce


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry


The timing of this book for me was fortuitous: the potentially saccharine optimism of particularly the middle half was a refreshing foil to the steadfast misanthropy of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Little Friend’ which I happened to also be reading at the time. Although Joyce did not want to ‘merely’ write a feelgood book, which surprisingly I think ultimately worked against her. As with the Matrix movies, the elegant profundity of the initial key insight – the inspired flipped perspective – is denuded by lesser and more muddied additions. Moreover the form itself became less effective: a tight, potent novella (c.f. ‘Of Mice and Men’) meandered into some inconsistent episodes.


And it isn’t merely saccharine to point out that strangers aren’t generally out to rob or molest you – whatever impression the media might convey – and that given the right stimuli/chance many of them will display generosity and goodwill. Cynicism isn’t automatically realism, and can distort perspective as much as rose-coloured glasses. Moreover some people, as Harold is cleverly shown to, can often flush out something better in people, perhaps by their own vulnerability, humility, and lack of an agenda. I enjoyed the way Joyce showed how the same circumstances can be experienced so radically differently. Harold doesn’t solve everyone’s problems instantly – or even slowly -  but he becomes aware of a richness to many of those he previously would have barely registered in his prior self-absorption. And this is sweetly turned around in Maureen’s forced reappraisal of Harold himself.


There’s an interesting challenge to the tyranny of routine – how much of our necessities are, really, necessary? Or even beneficial. Much of the toxicity of Harold and Maureen’s relationship is the patterns they’ve assumed. The dull fatality of suburbia is hardly untravelled territory, but the way Joyce expresses it here is a cut above many a smugly dismissive stereotype, and the Frys generally evoke more empathy than contempt.


Had Joyce have tied things up with some sort of reconciliation and reinvention around two thirds of the way through, whatever condition we would have found Queenie in, I think the book would have been more satisfying – not merely on a feelgood level, but an artistic one. However I think it became less effective when Harold’s story moved from diverting suggestions and resonances into, for example, heavy handed satire with the treatment of the ‘disciples’ – particularly the  unconvincing ‘Rich Lion’ (Pilgrim’s Progress naming?). I can see that she was deliberately trying to avoid being too twee, keeping things messy, but the predictability of Lion’s betrayal was just another type of twee (original in ‘Life of Brian’ – but not here). At least the pilgrims were a mixed bag.


Perhaps I could have coped with the unfortunate preachy-ness of the disciples chapters as a disappointing section, but Joyce really lost me with Harold’s bizarre descent into, what, dementia? Initially I thought his confusion was a bout of flu – and an interesting idea to explore: moving out of society into solo pilgrimage might allow all sorts of wonderful self actualisation and liberating Buddhist renunciation, but community and attachment can be pretty handy if you are, for example, sick. Rugged individuals often seem to enjoy good health. But Harold never really resumes the coherence and clarity of the earlier parts of his journey, and the only reason I can posit for this is Joyce exploring this aspect of aging, not allowing Harold to simply become a neatly packaged saint. Respectable idea, but I’m guessing a bit, and I was never as engaged with the book once Harold starts to lose it soon after going solo again.


This despite all the melodramatic revelations of the final few chapters – the Queenie mystery solved, the family drama revealed. I thought the book was most potent when it showed arresting, poignant tragedy and triumph in Harold and Maureen’s everyday lives and relationships. At times I felt like I might know these people – even be these people – with a new awareness of the importance of everyday choices, or of allowing habit to eventually override choices. But, while their experience with their son is sadly not uncommon, it is uncommon enough to distance their story from me. The resonances became observances, “Gee, I wouldn’t know what that would be like,” and my earlier empathy was undermined.


I admire Joyce’s skills and ambition, and particularly earlier parts of the book were endearing, insightful, even inspiring. However where she went with this, for me, made this a flawed gem.


January 2015