Author: Rachel Joyce
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: **** 1/2
Summary:Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.
Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: This was the first novel I read this year and o what a novel it was! This novel was defiantly on the bitter side of bitter-sweet. I don’t usually cry when I read, but I must admit that towards the end there were tears in my eyes. The novel starts at home with Harold and his wife Maureen at the breakfast table. Over their interaction while eating, it is clear that all is not right with their marriage. When Harold reads a letter at the table from Queenie, a former workmate who he as not seen in years, he finds out that she is dying from cancer. Harold is touched while Maureen remains nonplussed. Harold heads to the mailbox down the street to post his reply, but when he arrives he keeps walking. He passes the post office and soon he is out of town walking north. So begins Harold’s incredible journey to Queenie 600 miles away.
The novel covers Harold on his walk, his difficulty adapting to the sudden bout exercise, finding food and a place to sleep, and the people he meets along the way.While he walks memories come back to Harold: his childhood, when is mother left, and his life with his alcoholic father; his first meeting Maureen and their first few years together; and his memories of his son David, who, under the surface, the whole book revolves around. We also get to see how Maureen is coping at home without Harold. I found her scenes with Rex, their elderly neighbor who recently lost his wife, especially touching. And then there is Queenie. She worked with Harold at the brewery but left under mysterious circumstances 20 years ago without saying goodbye. An event in Harold’s past regarding Queenie is the impetus of the walk. Their backstory and relationship are revealed in the course of the book, although it is not till the end that we find out why Queenie left and, ultimately, Harold’s reason for walking.
While Harold walks we are given the opportunity to observe the modern-day English countryside. It is summer and England is in full-bloom. Harold walks along field full of wild flowers with birds twittering over his head, he walks through summer rainstorms, and, later, through late summer nights. England in summertime provides a nice backdrop for Harold and his memories of happier times.
The language of the book is simple but detailed, painting a vivid picture of Harold and his walk. Joyce is especially skilled at the little details that add to mood and enhance the story: a washed out sky after the rain, or the soft golden-peach hues of an early sunrise. The book is almost a quiet meandering, through both the English countryside and Harold’s mind.
I have heard some say that the book was deliberately morose and depressing, and while that may possibly be true, this is also a book of quiet beauty. My only complaint is the section, about two-thirds through, where Harold’s story is picked up by the media and he is joined for a while by others emulating him. I felt it took away from the feel, flow and purpose of the story; it was an unwelcome distraction. I must also admit that this book grew on me after I finished it. At first, my reaction was along the lines of ‘yes it was a good book and yes I did tear up reading it, but it is not amazing.’ After a few days though, my view changed and I came to realize that Harold was a very special character and that this was a special book, at least for me. I was especially touched at the short chapter toward the end of the book from the point of view of Queenie entitled ‘Queenie and the Gift.’ I received this book as a Christmas gift from my parents which I am happy about because if I hadn’t, and I had just borrowed this book form the library, I would have had to made a trip to the bookstore to purchase it! This is Joyce’s first book- I can’t wait to see what else she does!
Berwick-upon-Tweed, where Harold’s story ends
Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?