Sometimes I read a book with such memorable and delicately honed prose, such surpassing charm, that the less said about it, the better. These are books where I miss the characters when I close the cover for the last time, and find myself wondering, now and again, how they are getting on. I think of dropping them a Christmas card. I felt that way after I read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and, decades ago in college, A Prayer for Owen Meany.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, was just such a book for me. I feel duty-bound to admit that this book won’t work for everyone. A quick look at some reviews showed me that a plot twist revealed late in the story left some readers feeling unfulfilled. One reviewer described the novel as “twee,” which surprised me. Okay, you might not, like me, find yourself wishing you could ring Harold and his wife Maureen up for a chat. But this is a book that offered that rare “Yes!” to life that I never encounter often enough in literature, in film or (when I venture out there on occasion) in actual life. This story left my book group – to a person – touched, enchanted and provoked to ponder the deeper questions the narrative brings up. This isn’t a sticky sweet story, Joyce explores the anguish of loss, guilt and self-loathing. As Harold walks forward through the English countryside – a land Joyce researched meticulously and describes gorgeously – we walk with him back through the pages of his heart-rending tale.
And that is all I will say. I picked this up without any prior knowledge of the story and I hesitate to burden you with much more than I went in with. No need to be forewarned and forearmed; allow yourself to be disarmed by Joyce’s bittersweet story of our lifelong need for love and redemption. I hope you enjoy it as I did. This novel has been immensely popular in England, where it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.