Harold Fry is 65 and retired after 45 years as a sales rep at a brewery (though he doesn’t drink). He and his wife, Maureen, whose temperament matches the way she likes her toast—cold and crisp—live in Kingsbridge, in the south of England. “It wasn’t like living in a house,” says Harold, “but more a question of hovering over the surfaces.” Then, Harold gets a letter from Queenie, a former colleague he hasn’t spoken to in 20 years, who once did him a sizable favour. She’s dying of cancer in a hospice in Berwick on Tweed. Shaken, Harold scribbles down an awkward note and sets out for the mailbox. But instead of dropping the letter in, he keeps walking. When he stops at a gas station on the edge of town, a greasy-haired girl tells him about her aunt who had cancer. “You have to believe a person can get better,” the girl says. “If you have faith, you can do anything.” With that, Harold knows what to do. Against all odds, and in spite of Maureen’s sharp disapproval, he’s going to walk the length of England to Queenie. “I am going to save her,” he tells a nurse at the hospice over the phone. “I will keep walking and she must keep living.”
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is Rachel Joyce’s first novel. It began as a radio play she wrote for her father when he was dying of cancer. Harold’s quietly heroic journey treads a familiar literary theme, but there’s enough freshness to keep the story engaging. Joyce slowly reveals what he has to walk away from, and there are some surprises. His progress is measured in memories as well as miles; memories of parents who didn’t want him, and of the early days of his marriage and his only son David’s childhood. There are a few lapses in the story—events and characters that come along at convenient moments—but Joyce captures Harold’s emotions with a tidiness of words that is at times thrilling. It’s a trip worth taking.