The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a small tale of an unimportant man going on an unassuming errand. At least, that’s what Harold Fry himself believes when he sets out to mail a letter to a dying friend. But when Harold follows his own inner urgings and keeps walking, past the mailbox at the end of his drive, past the mailbox a few blocks down, and right through the small English town he has lived in for decades and out into the bigger world, his errand becomes a journey, and his journey becomes a pilgrimage. He wants, in some vague way, to make a difference.
Rachel Joyce could just as easily have been named this novel The Unlikely Awakening of Harold Fry. It’s a spiritual parable that tells us how to recover from a grievous wound. It shows us how to forgive and how to transform our pain into something helpful, something useful, something wise. As Harold puts one foot in front of the other, each new experience opens him up, and the opening lets out a little more of what he has kept inside.
Joyce is a wonderful writer. The details of the landscape and people Harold encounters on his journey are selected to enhance the metaphor of his awakening. She offers us very concrete ways to experience his pain and anguish, as well as a way to glimpse the beauty and wonder of his journey. Joyce is a master at pacing and suspense, revealing just enough of the past to keep us moving forward. Joyce very delicately withholds the truth of Harold’s transgressions until Harold, and the reader, are ready to examine them in a compassionate way. As Harold transforms his guilt and distress into forgiveness, his wife manages to change as well. Her transformation is as telling as Harold’s, and both are as real as can be.
Joyce chooses to keep the reader at a distance from the central nugget of pain that is propelling Harold’s journey. We glimpse Harold’s memories, but never quite experience the reality of his past. I feel that she chose a little too safe of route as a writer and lost some of the power that is inherent in her story. While the physical and emotional journeys were well crafted in parallel, there were a few times I felt Joyce could have trusted her writing a little more, and left the reader to find the depth in her words on their own. I had a vague, dissatisfied feeling at the end, like I didn’t get to taste everything on my plate, but these small things are far outweighed by the sheer audacity of Harold’s story.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has a deep resonance, largely because we are all on a journey. It may not be as epic a journey as Harold Fry’s, but a journey non-the-less. If we choose to take up the call of the open road, to ‘make a difference’, as Harold Fry does, then our internal journey has begun. Walk a while with Harold, and see the world with the fresh eyes of a newly compassionate person. It’s a journey well worth it.