You know that song by the Proclaimers? The one about walking five hundred miles?
When I wake up
Yeah, I know I’m gonna be
I’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you
Stay with me, though. We can sing the chorus at the end, I promise.
See, I just read a book about a character who walks even farther than that, and it’s pretty great.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is Rachel Joyce’s first novel and was released in the United Kingdom in 2012. Before that, Joyce penned over 20 plays for BBC Radio 4 and wrote for Women’s Hour and the Classic Series, among other programs. And before that, she was an actor with the RSC, the Royal National Theatre, The Royal Court, and Cheek by Jowl. This is a woman who understands character development and motivation.
I got extra double lucky this time, too, because the audio version I bought was performed by Jim Broadbent (The Iron Lady, the Harry Potter series).
The title character Harold Fry is, at first blush, disarmingly ordinary. He has recently retired from his job at the local brewery, a position he held for twenty years without promotion or penalty. He has no hobbies, unless that includes talking about yard fertilizer with his nextdoor neighbor Rex. He and his wife Maureen sleep in separate beds and have ever since their “estranged” son David left home years before.
Then the gadfly buzzes gently in. Just kidding. It’s not a gadfly, it’s a letter from one of Harold’s old friends.
She writes to say she is losing a long battle with cancer and wants to wish him well. In no time, he has written a reply and is walking it to the mailbox. Once there, it occurs to Harold that perhaps to be safe, he should walk it straight to the post office. And once there, he just feels somehow that he should keep walking.
What starts as a whim quickly turns into an ordeal. Sometimes when the body is in perpetual motion, the mind is allowed to self-clean dark corners long undisturbed, and Harold takes the opportunity to sort through his past.
Back in the day, films and novels about later-life crises would have caused the eyes to roll right back in my head with boredom, but 30-something A.C. appears to be much more enterprising. And it’s a good thing, because this book is a treasure. Joyce says beautiful things about long-term relationships, love, and lying to ourselves. I especially admire her restraint, patience and grace in storytelling.
There’s some tough stuff in this novel, so younger readers should steer clear.
I have a complicated relationship with exercise, but there is something so daring about Harold Fry’s enterprise. The story seems to channel A Walk Across America’s innovative Peter Jenkins, Into the Wild’s tragic Chris McCandless, and Craigslist Joe’s quirky Joseph Garner. A pilgrimage of this magnitude could be magical, miraculous, or go terribly, terribly wrong. Harold’s markedly fictional journey, if completed, will measure 627 miles.
Sing it with me!
La da-dah (La da-dah)
La da-dah (La da-dah)
La da-dum diddle-um diddle-um diddle-la da-da
But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles
To fall down at your do-o-or