When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else’s life.
This year there has been a bit of a theme emerging in the bestseller list: older chaps who wander off in the tradition of the Latin solvitur ambulando, solving problems through walking. I cite as evidence The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared and now this tale of Harold Fry walking 627 miles because he believes it will save his friend from cancer. He sets off to post a letter to Queenie after she tells him her sad news. He walks past the postbox, deciding that a letter isn’t enough. Setting out in his deck shoes with no supplies or waterproofs, Harold makes his way up and across the country, meeting and listening to an interesting assortment of supporting players. As with The Hundred Year Old Man, I’m going to be a one-woman book club and answer the questions that the publishers have so helpfully included in the back pages.
1. Harold’s journey is both physical and metaphorical…What other literary journeys does this book call to mind? The quote from The Pilgrim’s Progress at the start is a bit of a clue. Otherwise, I suppose it’s a little like The Canterbury Tales as we get the stories of travellers who join him, and there is something of the pilgrimage about it. It does remind me of The Woman Who Went To Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend, because of the popular interest that a single person’s unconventional behaviour can spark.
2. When we first meet Harold and Maureen (his wife) they seem to be in different worlds. To what extent do you see Maureen as the cause of Harold’s departure? Maureen and Harold haven’t really been getting along for a while. There’s clearly sadness between them. As they no longer talk it seems that there is no way for Harold to deal with this added sadness, the illness of his old friend Queenie, inside this silent environment. He’s tired of being distant, of not being able to do anything to make things better, so he walks. I don’t think Maureen is the cause; Harold’s responsible for his own actions. She chooses not to stop him, which is an entirely different thing altogether.
3. How much are Harold’s responses to his fellow pilgrims dictated by his past? One of the most touching and genuine parts of the book is Harold’s response to the vulnerable young man that joins him on his journey. He reminds Harold of his son whom he was unable to help through difficulties. These regrets are central to the book. The dog is lovely too, and probably dreadfully symbolic of something or other.
4. Was the ending of the novel a shock or the inevitable conclusion? I guessed a lot, but not all, of what happened at the end. It was a well-balanced conclusion that skilfully matched the tone of the novel.
5. Has this novel inspired you to do anything extraordinary? I think it highlights the importance of valuing people and friendships, and it inspired me to read Rachel Joyce’s next offering.
Have you read it? What do you think? Leave a comment below.