My rating: 4 of 5 stars
1989, I’m sitting in a car in a shopping mall parking lot, waiting for a friend to get off work. I’m 17, reading the last 10 pages or so of Fried Green Tomatoes, crying my eyes out. Fast forward to a few days ago, me sitting my home offices, reading the last few pages of Pilgrimage, and for the first time in 23 years, crying my eyes out again. A moving story, touching, gentle, subtle, simple.
I came to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry via the 2012 Booker Prize longlist, and maybe I was on the rebound from reading a rather difficult book before, but I thoroughly enjoyed almost every page of this one. Here’s a man who, on a whim, decides to walk nonstop from the bottom of England to the top. An old man, retired, who never made much of himself except that his life could have been a whole lot worse, and there’s triumph in not succumbing to one’s circumstance. Through the course of the walk he doesn’t overcome personal tragedies as much as he finally addresses old injuries, breaking himself down emotionally so that he can heal up again.
Rachel Joyce isn’t the first author to write a story about somebody taking along walk. There’s Lawrence Block’s Random Walk, and of course Stephen King’s Long Walk, and I’m sure many others. I was also reminded of the cross-country running section of Forrest Gump, and the young man’s self-imposed austerity in Into the Wild. There’s something very compelling about this urge to just start walking, and let everything else disappear behind you. More than once I thought about a man I met in Sonora, CA, who owned a used bookstore and who, himself, had once walked across the United States.
As I said, the book is subtle, building up to reveal Harold’s past slowly, and along the way the simple descriptions of his daily progress don’t get too bogged down in the mileage. And Joyce does an excellent job of showing how one person, doing something as simple as walking, can have a profound effect on so many others.