The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
I would like to start this review with two things: one, this book completely wowed me and two, the outside of the book is addicting to touch. That out of the way, I absolutely adored this book, it was surprising in a beautiful and emotional way. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry tells the story of a retired man who receives a letter that changes his life. Impulsively, for a man who can barely remember the last time he was spontaneous, the letter inspires him to walk from Kingsbridge in England to Berwick in Scotland with no map, no walking shoes, and no plan. His journey brings him into contact with unique characters, turns into a media sensation, and explores what is at the very heart of humanity.
There were so many unexpected moments that took my breath away and almost brought me to tears in very public places. It resonated deeply with me, which is surprising since I am not a parent nor married for long, but the amount it moved me merely speaks to the universal appeal this book has. You do not have to be a parent nor even married to understand the little and the big things: such as the way we say cruel things we do not mean to the ones we love not knowing how to say sorry, all the way to the immense weight we feel when we are confronted with the unfairness of early mortality.
Harold’s journey highlights the ways that we lose touch with ourselves over the years, forgetting our youthful spirit, and even our desires. His courage to be spontaneous and walk, illustrates the bravery it takes to believe in the power of healing and redemption. While having no outward connection to religion, Harold’s journey becomes a pilgrimage for both himself and his wife Maureen because his journey is not about religion, but about the nature of faith. He becomes the obvious pilgrim, but Maureen must go on both a spiritual and physical journey that forces her to confront her (lack of) faith. Faith here applies not only to a spiritual being, but extends to faith in love and humankind. The memories and feelings his walk exposes deal with the resentment and guilt that festers over time and the inability or unwillingness to right these wrongs, as well as the necessity of bravery to take the blame and confront those inner demons. There are plenty of twists and turns, detours and mistakes that occur along the way: all of them I did not see coming. There is a beautiful sense of craftsmanship and art in the way that these events are revealed to us, almost as if we are in their minds and gradually we are able to process our memories that we have repressed and have been unable to deal with.
The reason Harold walks is a mystery for the majority of the book in an utterly delightful and obsessive way, as little hints are revealed as he walks onward. It is not only about the people he meets on his walk, or the courage and feelings his walk inspires in others, but the exploration of his marriage and identity as the miles grow. It examines the human condition and the complacency to stay at rest when we have stopped moving, to hide from the light; yet at the same time uncovering the beauty and compassion of humanity.
Harold is completely unprepared and at the center of his walk lies doubt and guilt, but he believes that one can “be ordinary and attempt something extraordinary, without being able to explain it in a logical way” (196). From the title, the book looks at what a pilgrimage is and who it is for. I have been having trouble believing in the good and loving side of humanity, so this book falls into my lap at just the perfect moment, completely reaffirming my belief in the possibilities of human generosity and their ability to change. It is a story of forgetting and remembering, of being brave enough to repair relationships, and to rage in the face of mortality.
I absolutely loved this book and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to explore the nature of guilt, read an incredibly touching book, or are interested in how a retired Englishman decides to walk over six hundred miles in yachting shoes. The author’s dedication after the story is even more touching and reading it gives you fascinating insights into the characters’ decisions and the importance of the message. You can pick up a copy of this book yourself at Amazon here!
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