The story is about a retired man, Harold Fry, who lives in Knightsbridge with his wife, Maureen. After receiving a letter from an old friend, he leaves home to mail his answer, but as soon as he starts walking he realizes that the envelope he’s holding in his hand is not enough to fill the gap of twenty years of silence.
That is the reason why Harold Fry, the unwanted child, the uncaring father and the ungrateful friend, decides to take a leap of faith, trying to save Queenie Hennessy by walking all the way up from Knightsbridge to Berwick. There is only one problem: he has no map, no boots, no phone. With a shirt, a tie, and a pair of yachting shoes, he will have to cross the country counting only on his aching feet, his determination and his naïve simplicity.
“But maybe is what the world needs. A little less sense, and a little more faith”.
When we think of a pilgrim, we normally think of a holy man, full of faith, hope and unanswered questions, who decides to physically and mentally challenge himself. He has gone through the whole route, studying all the turns he will have to make, carefully choosing the necessary: a toothbrush, as many socks as allowed by the rucksack, a cell phone charger, extra linings and, maybe, even a Bible. Pocket size if possible. But most importantly, this hypothetical pilgrim knows to be a pilgrim from the moment he plans the journey.
That is not however the case of Harold Fry. He, on the contrary, doesn’t know to be a pilgrim. Theoretically, he has nothing to do with the man just described: he has no faith, no hopes, not even unanswered questions.
Hence, this novel is not about a pilgrim and his journey, but more about an average man who becomes a pilgrim during a touching and sensational walk, finding faith in the unexplainable, hope for miracles and answers for questions he never had the courage to ask himself.
“He had started; and in doing so Harold could already see the end”.
A lot of topics are brought up by Harold’s “stream of consciousness”, but maybe the most recurring one is the difficulty of ending what was started. Rachel Joyce has given a lot of importance to the physical and mental strength needed to push ourselves beyond our limits. She did not spare anything: not the pain, or the stress, or the blisters. The novel is realistic, unlike the unlikely. Everyone keeps telling Harold that only a fool could think of saving a woman’s life by walking or that his intention of crossing the country is impossible without the right training. He knows that the odds are against him and, for this reason, he has moments of hesitation.
The true unlikely thing about this novel is exactly what makes it special: in spite of all the difficulties, all the plausible excuses that could be found, Harold Fry kept going. No matter what the weather was like or how bad his feet hurt. He “picked himself up and got back to the race”, as Sinatra would say.
“There must be a way to make a difference”.
It’s not easy to love Harold. Not at first sight, at least. He seems to live in this sort of cocoon that separates him from the rest of the world and you have the strong impulse to shake him up, hoping to get rid of that lethargic status.
He doesn’t seem to have any kind of curiosity. He’s never at ease with people and he never feels the need to talk to someone, be it about the weather or about a book. He avoids everything that can cause trouble, to him or others, or threaten the equilibrium he has so attentively built over the years.
You start to love Harold Fry as soon as you understand his extraordinary simplicity, jeopardized though in the last chapters, when an unexpected twist seems to prove that the unlikely can happen only if the situation is tragic and needs a profound fix.
If we analysed objectively Harold’s journey, we would see that, at the end, he walked, thought and slept. That’s it.
“How can such a man be interesting enough to make me read 300 pages?”, you wonder. What does this unlikely pilgrim have to say or teach?
The answer is the key to understand the real magic of this book. A book that excites and saddens, that calms and enrages. A book that catches you from the very first page.