The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the story of a retired man trapped in a loveless marriage, estranged from his son and, it seems, from the world around him. He makes a break with his assumed destiny when he receives a letter from his old friend and colleague, Queenie Hennessey. She is dying of cancer in a hospice in Berwick-on-Tweed and Harold resolves to send her a letter, but when he reaches the postbox, he can’t bring himself to post it; instead he carries on walking.
Harold is not equipped to walk to Berwick-on-Tweed from his home in Devon, of all places. He is wearing yachting shoes and has left his mobile phone at home. When he phones his wife, Maureen, to tell her of his plan, her reply is her usual, clipped ‘I think not.’ She reminds him that he is the sort of man who only walks to and from the car but, though he knows this to be true, Harold declines to return home. He has phoned the hospice and informed the staff that Queenie Hennessey must wait, that she must live, until he arrives.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a gentle book, in the most best sense of the word. It is not predicated on knife’s-edge action or shocking revelations (although there are moments of both in the story); it is the tale of a man who changes his life, not in a moment but by putting one foot in front of the other and plodding towards an unexpected, unplannned future.
It’s essentially about an ordinary person moved to do an extroardinary thing. It’s about the people he meets along the way and what he discovers about himself. But if this makes the book sound formulaic then I’m doing it an injustice. It’s a lovely, original book with real, flawed, loveable characters. It’s heartwarming without descending into mush and I found it genuinely quite inspiring. Harold got under my skin, I suppose you could say. Sometimes now, when I feel like I really can’t be bothered to do something, I think of Harold in his yachting shoes, with his angry blisters and the shooting pains in his leg, with all the odds of age and previous character stacked against him, with no moral support, just a cold ‘I think not’, and I am reminded of the benefits of not looking too far ahead, of just putting one foot in front of the other and moving, however slowly, towards your goal, daft though it might seem at times.
You might think it sounds like I’m going soft in the head but I dare you to finish this book and still feel cynical. I dare you not to be charmed by lovely old Harold Fry and his unlikely cross-country adventure.