Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

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As an English student, I think it’s fair to say that I read a lot of heavy stuff. The summer gave me a much-awaited chance for some leisure reading, so the words ‘magical, moving and uplifting’ on the back cover gave me hope. Although this book doesn’t seem the ideal choice for a student audience, given its 60-something protagonist and the scarily heavy word ‘pilgrimage’ in the title, don’t be put off by its implication of a harrowing spiritual journey to seek union with God. This is not a religious or preachy book. Give it a go – you might be pleasantly surprised.

I won’t spoil the whole plot, but it becomes fairly clear in the beginning of the book that the protagonist, Harold Fry, is attempting to walk nearly the length of Britain, from Devon to Northumberland, to see an old friend. I was initially worried that the book would plod along at the same pace as Harold, but these fears were unfounded. The emotional journey that Harold goes through, consisting of flashbacks and reflections which gradually piece together the story, sustain the novel. Harold also meets plenty of other people along his journey, each with their own story. They provide comic relief, and give a good a sense of the universality of all the emotions he is going through. At the risk of sounding cheesy, by the end of the book you come to realise that everyone is on a journey of some sort, including Maureen, the wife he leaves behind. I think that their relationship is the most exquisitely constructed aspect of the book. As a 19-year-old student, I wasn’t expecting to be able to relate to Harold particularly well, but the writing provides such immersion into Harold’s inner life that it’s impossible not to.

Rachel Joyce has a unique ability to write in a way that is relatable and engaging. She doesn’t succumb to clichés, but at the same time her writing is extremely accessible. The reader feels on exactly the same level as both Harold and the author throughout. The book’s emotional integrity, engaging writing and optimism makes it the perfect leisure read, perfect for those times when we have fewer assignments.

by Kathryn Ferguson

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