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Old 4th Apr 2012, 14:02   #1
offtheisland
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Default Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

There seems to be a fascination for books with long titles at the moment (Jon McGregor's 'This isn't the sort of thing that happens to someone like you' and 'The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder' by J W Ironmonger spring to mind and this one by Rachel Joyce 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' is another.
Maybe in the case of the Joyce book a long title is justified as her central character - a man in his sixties - goes on a very very long walk - 627 miles in fact in 87 days.
Now for many there would be a problem with with this kind of story because, well, as the book title says 'unlikely'. This is exactly what I was feeling as I picked this up on the strength of advance publicity which suggested that this was well worth a read and in the words of Erica Wagner of 'The Times' in the blurb on the cover ...'From the moment I met Harold Fry, I didn't want to leave him. Impossible to put down.' Now we all know about blurbs but I have to say I agree with this one.
But that still left the feeling that this was such an improbably story - Harold Fry sets off on his walk after receiving a postcard from a long-lost workmate, Queenie Hennessy who is in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed over 600 miles from where Harold lives in the south west of England. You'd think wouldn't you - 'no that just wouldn't happen'. But then I thought about other improbable and seemingly impossible journeys. What about a whole range of comedians and celebrities, apparently unsuited for arduous pursuits who have suddenly got up and done the most unlikely of things - swimming the English Channel and the Thames, running countless marathons day after day and so on. So, Harold's journey is indeed unlikely but certainly not impossible.
But the main thing about this book that makes it a winner is the character of Harold and to a lesser extent his wife Maureen and how the book examines their relationship with each other and their son David. Basically, these are ordinary people to whom some difficult and troubling things happen. Their story is told with such brilliance of feeling that they are lifted off the page. And, although the book starts in a very jolly way it becomes quite dark as Harold and Maureen's self-examination becomes more intense. And then there is Queenie. I cannot say too much here as it would spoil the ending but Rachel Joyce provides the reader with both both shock and relief at the end of the journey.
There is a touch of 'Forrest Gump' about a certain section of the book as Harold's journey picks up a following and I felt this was perhaps the weakest section of the book but it does bring with it extra comedy and a pitch-perfect commentary on contemporary celebrity and its consequences.
So, I would whole-heartedly recommend 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry'. An inspirational book even though I don't intend to go on as long a walk as Harold in the near future or ever!
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