Going on a walk with Harold

I am a big fan of books where people walk. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Almost every Anita Brookner novel there is. Leonard Bast in Howard’s End. I’m sure there are others as well. I once walked 10 miles home from work just because I felt like it. From Old Town Alexandria, Virginia to our apartment in Adams Morgan in DC. My hands got puffy and I got caught in a lightening storm and tropical downpour, but it was nice to say that I had done it. I’m not necessarily a walking fanatic, but I do like the healthful, emotionally restorative benefits that walking long distances offers.

And then came Harold Fry.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
I could’ve really hated this book. Instead I really, I mean really, loved it. Newly retired Harold Fry gets a letter from Queenie, a former co-worker he hasn’t seen in 20 years that she has inoperable cancer and is living in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed in the very north of England. Harold is touched by the letter but doesn’t quite know now to answer it. He feels that his reply is less than adequate and hesitates to put it in the first mailbox he comes to. He walks on until he finds another one but keeps walking past that one as well. Then he is inspired by the words of a clerk at a gas station and decides to go see Queenie. But he decides to walk. From Kingsbridge in the very south of England. And he doesn’t even go home to get proper walking shoes or his mobile phone, or any other thing that could make his 452-mile trek a little more plausible.

This was the first point I thought I might put the book down. My literal, logical mind would not accept this approach. But happily, I kept going. When his walk turns into a media circus I also got a bit annoyed, but only a little. And by that time I liked Harold so much I didn’t want to leave him. As he goes on his journey Harold meets all kinds of people and we learn bit by bit what his back story is with Queenie and with his wife Maureen.

The thing I so liked about this book was that most of the characters seem to transform for the reader. They don’t necessarily transform in their own lives, but how the reader views them is transformed. The young woman working in the garage–I thought I had her pegged as being an awful, uncaring Catherine Tate character, yet she ends up being the catalyst for the whole story. And then there are those that do transform and shift their way of thinking. And there is Harold’s patience and ability to see the good where others can’t. And there is the fact that there are so many people who are nice to him along the way. I literally walked around with a smile on my face because of this book. It also had me crying at my desk one day at lunch.

So many ways it could have gone wrong. Instead, a total joy to read. Not great art, but such a lovely book.

11 thoughts on “Going on a walk with Harold

  1. BookerTalk May 22, 2016 / 12:51 pm

    you do have to suspend disbelief a few times in this novel (the part where he’s joined by groupies irritated me) but its still enjoyable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • camilledefleurville May 22, 2016 / 1:02 pm

      I have been reading about Anita Brookner’s Day on your blog.

      I am assistant editor to the Alliance of the British Literary Societies..When national autors of such a stature as Anita Brookner do not belong to “our” authors”, we promote them as well: they are national treasures.

      I am certain the editor would approve my putting a reminder on our FB page ad on out Twitter account. Would you be interested?

      You can find me as Camille de Fleurville-Malaret (blogger) on FB.

      If you wish, please, be in touch.


  2. Travellin'Penguin May 22, 2016 / 7:36 pm

    I did put the book down after he began his walk being so unprepared. I didn’t get past it. But I have never stopped thinking about him. I wondered what happened. Now, having read your review I am going to have to dig him out again. Can I remember if I own this book or did I borrow it. Darn. I must reread this book.


  3. michelle May 23, 2016 / 3:07 am

    I detested the part when he was joined by groupies too, and it reminded me abit of Forrest Gump. Anyway, you must go on to read Queenie’s story (The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy) which I felt was a far more moving and poignant tale. It will also give you a clearer understanding as to how Harold came to be the person he was.


    • Thomas May 23, 2016 / 9:01 am

      I’ve had the opposite reaction. I put down The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy after about 50 pages. It feels like an author trying to cash in on a best seller. And I find the construction of it problematic. All the parts where Queenie is telling Howard what he did, etc. You walked in the room wearing purple hat that you said your wife gave you when you went on holiday where you said you had headaches from too much sun. I just made that up, just trying to point out how awkward I felt the “you” construction of her recollections/letter to Harold is to me.


  4. Liz Dexter May 23, 2016 / 5:23 am

    How interesting, I have kind of avoided this one because it’s so popular and beloved, which usually means I’ll hate the book. Maybe if it comes into view in a charity shop …

    One of the things I love about Iris Murdoch is her characters’ epic London walks.


    • Thomas May 23, 2016 / 9:02 am

      I think I ignored all the hype when this was an “it” book so I was somewhat immune to it. But I understand your feelings about those kind of books.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. biggardenblog May 23, 2016 / 8:40 am

    Well that’s a life-changing moment to discover that there are other folk in this world who award credit points for gratuitous walking! I’ve often dreamed of going to visit a daughter in Navarra, Spain (sorry, Basque Country), arriving unanounced, with boots and backpack, having walked from Santander (not sure whether I could also manage the walk from the Outer Hebrides to Plymouth (or whever the ferry goes from). In a way it’s a sort of pilgrimage: you honour the subject of the visit by ‘suffering’ – though actually for me it would be a joy – or at least the sacrifice of that most precious thing, time. I read EM Forster for first time in my most formative years – late teens, and I recall how struck I was with Leonard Bast’s night walks.


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