Life unravels for accidental pilgrim

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryBOOK REVIEW: An accidental traveller unravels his life in Rachel Joyce’s steely but funny and tender debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

Writing about other people’s journeys  is a key aim of this blog, and I love sharing this one with you – even though it’s fictitious it poignantly mirrors the travails of real life’s journey.  It’s far removed from the shouty shouty world of travel blogging where social media would have you believe that LESS IS NEVER MORE.  And which carnivorously embraces and creates LOOK AT ME I’M SO FANTASTIC, FOLLOW MY TRAVELS FRIEND ME SHARE ME DON’T MISS A NANOSECOND OF ALL MY AWESOMENESS.

Harold Fry is not one of those. This book resonates more deeply than that dreadful chorus. Book blogger friend Stephanie Campisi at Read In A Single Sitting is right about quiet books and everyday wonders – there should be a revival. High-stakes concepts have become banal.

Ailsa Piper’s non-fiction book Sinning Across Spain is a recent fine example of a quiet book and thoughtful odyssey, and Joyce’s book is another. A Man Booker Prize long-listed book for 2012, the novel  reveals Harold’s faintly ludicrous walk from Kingsbridge in the south to Berwick-Upon-Tweed in Britain’s north.

One fine morning he puts on his boat (or yachting) shoes and sets off to post a letter to a long-lost colleague dying of cancer. He is mid 60s, retired and disappointed with how he has arrived at this impasse.  His wife of 47 years, Maureen, filters the world through net curtains. On an impulse (and he’s never had many) Harold walks past the postbox, and keeps walking. His wife, hoovering her already pristine home, is blissfully unaware. It becomes an odyssey of hundreds of kilometres where Harold makes chance encounters and reflects on tragic events from his past which transform his life and in turn unexpectedly alter the lives of people he encounters.

It’s a novel in the age-old tradition of a pilgrim’s quest, albeit with contemporary quirks. Thank goodness Harold wasn’t the type to be on Facebook or Twitter milking every moment of his travels to become a 15-second celebrity. Anyway, he had left his mobile phone at home. Harold hadn’t even taken a change in underwear. This non-judgmental man – by turns blistered and footsore, bewildered, tormented and elated – undergoes a modest transformation as he wrestles with his heart and soul. For a time, a dog becomes his only companion. Harold attracts and then shrinks from people fascinated with his odyssey (and who exploit him on social media). It is a tumultuous unravelling for a man so timid.

Walking across Britain with a dog for companyHarold understands that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it’s also his journey to accept the strangeness of others, Joyce writes.  “As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. Some of those people are even weirder than he is: a tax inspector who was a Druid, a priest who confessed to tweeting during mass, a white witch from Glastonbury.”

Joyce’s writing style is economical – she conveys profound events and emotions with disarming simplicity. It suits the theme – walking is a such an ordinary yet  important human activity. The novel has breathtaking power. If you’re living in the `burbs and wondering what the hell is happening to your life, then this gem is for you. Put your boat shoes on.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, published by Doubleday, can now be bought on Amazon or Booktopia for as little as $16.95.

If you’re interested in walking holidays in the UK, I recommend the North Devon and Exmoor Walking Festival, this northern spring from April 27-May 6. It covers the same countryside as Harold’s adventure. This festival has 41 guided walks to choose from. More info: 

Walking North Devon
41 choices of walks are offered for festival goers to North Devon and Exmoor

2 thoughts on “Life unravels for accidental pilgrim

  1. Hi Heather,
    Thanks for this book review chock full of your viewpoint on travel bloggers: “LOOK AT ME I’M SO FANTASTIC, FOLLOW MY TRAVELS FRIEND ME SHARE ME DON’T MISS A NANOSECOND OF ALL MY AWESOMENESS.”
    I couldn’t agree more! And while I don’t begrudge too much those adventurers seeking adoration, (being young and active is a good thing), I do agree with you that the quiet people are worth a serious look. I’ve always admired the quiet people — there’s so many of them — in the background just living their interesting lives. Those are the ones I want to get to know.
    This book sounds so good. Thanks for turning me on to it. Conrad and I are in the talking stages of doing the pilgrimage walk on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, so this struck a chord in that way. I need to read this story!
    Wishing you safe and happy travels always and all ways,


    1. Hi Josie, thanks for your input. Couldn’t agree with you more. If you’re planning to walk the Camino de Santiago, then Sinning Across Spain is the book to read. Ailsa also lists what gear to take, how much her trip cost and lots of other helpful info. Let me know how you’re trekking…. I would also love to do this walk


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