Friday, June 28, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is a tribute to life's unexpected turns and the endurance of marital love. It's opening quote from A Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan (published 1678), highlights the book's quest motif.

Like the pilgrim, Christian, in John Bunyan's allegory, Harold Fry is weighted down by a sense of guilt and failure. But unlike Christian, he is not spurred on by religious faith. Indeed, Harold has lost his faith both in God and in himself. His colleague and friend, Queenie, lies in a hospice 628 miles away, ravaged by cancer.  She has sent Harold a note saying goodbye. Carefully crafting a response, he sets about mailing it when the notion to keep walking takes hold. Harold's pilgrimage thus begins.

Harold's reason for walking is his conviction that this act will forestall Queenie's death. He believes it to be the one courageous thing he has done in his life. As he walks, his heart is heavy with perceived failures. First and foremost is the sadness he feels over his loveless marriage. He and his wife, Maureen, have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for the past twenty years. Harold believes he has completely failed as a parent to their only child, David. During the 48 days of Harold's walk, we learn that the adolescent David was addicted to drugs and alcohol--an illness that afflicted his grandfather.

As Harold continues on his walk, he comes more to resemble a homeless man than the man he once was. He doesn't bath, he wears the same clothes, and the obsessive thoughts of his childhood and his lost love begin to unhinge him. Back at home, his wife Maureen goes from feeling abandoned by the man she deems a nuisance to remembering the young Harold she deeply loved. 

In turn, the reader becomes acquainted with the true nature of both characters through flashbacks and internal dialogues. Although some scenes are humorous, the book is a sad one. As both Maureen and Harold come to terms with life's tragedies, there is a sense of redemption and a rediscovery of love.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a light read that is strongest when the author deals with real emotion. The book is weak in its attempt at humor. Still, Joyce has created a modern-day parable that is engaging.

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