The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

As usual, the only book I managed to read on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize didn’t make it to the shortlist. For once I’m not particularly surprised; it was the ‘popular’ choice in a year when the judging panel seemed to want to move away from last year’s decision to make ‘readability’ part of the criteria. On the other hand it is the story of a white man of a certain age musing over his past and attempting to define and/or change who he is in the present, which is reminiscent of the last two winners – Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question.

I enjoyed both those books and both were probably more literary (whatever that means) than Harold, but I didn’t find either of them as poignant or as funny as Rachel Joyce’s first novel. While the basic premise (Harold’s walk) is not really credible in it’s entirety, Joyce makes it believable as a series of small moments, small decisions. This is also the story of Harold’s life – a series of choices, mostly small, that have lead him to an unintended place, with seemingly no way back. To say the journey is an unoriginal metaphor is to miss the point – Harold’s life is not unusual or unique and the familiarity of his story (in essence, though specific details are, I hope, uncommon) adds to the pathos.

The secondary characters are generally less finely detailed than the protagonist and a few (the wannabe pilgrims) slip into caricature, but the important ones (Harold’s wife, his son, his neighbour, Queenie) ring true and shed light on facets of Harold’s character as well as showcasing Joyce’s ability to convey a range of impressions with a few details. Moreover, as I’m reading for pleasure rather than as a critic for once, they piqued my interest and created a satisfying balance of comic and tragic elements.

Arguably, there are two twists in the novel, one to do with Harold’s past and the other his present. The latter was no great surprise and the novel ended roughly as I expected (and as I hoped, with no convenient miracles or huge declarations to destroy the verisimilitude). However the revelation(s) about Harold’s past did genuinely shock me and yet made perfect sense – tough to pull off and neatly done here. I can’t say more without spoiling the surprise…

Overall, this is a strong debut novel and I would certainly read more by Rachel Joyce. I can see why it wouldn’t have won the Booker, but I’m glad I spent my time on it rather than Bringing Up the Bodies!

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