I always think that when you are watching TV what you see looks like what it physically represents. A woman looks likes a woman, a woman with blond hair looks like a woman with blond hair and a woman with blond hair and a tattoo of a butterfly looks like a woman with blond hair with a tattoo of a butterfly. But when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on paper or frequently now black pixels on a screen. To transform these icons into characters and events you must imagine. So it is in being read, that a book becomes a book and in each of ten different readings, a book becomes one of ten different books. For me therein lies the richness of reading. It is what makes being part of a book group enjoyable, interesting and insightful.
Our book group seemed to fall by the wayside for a while but we are back up and running and last month we read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. This is a novel which you could love but one which some readers disliked. I happen to be one of the book’s fans.
The story begins with the arrival of an unexpected letter and an impulsive act. Harold Fry who has recently retired, lives with his wife Maureen in a small English town. Each morning Harold shaves, puts on a tie and sits in the same chair with nowhere to go. Maureen is irritated by nearly everything Harold does, even down to the way he butters his toast and she goes about her chores in sullen silence. Each day drifts into another, with Harold living in a state of emotionally numb passivity. Then one morning Harold receives a letter addressed to him in a shaky scrawl from Queenie Hennessey an old friend he has not seen or heard from in 20 years. Queenie is in a hospice and is writing to say goodbye.
Harold pens a reply and sets off to post his letter to Queenie but instead of doing just that he embarks on a 600 mile journey from Kingsbridge to Berwick upon Tweed. He somehow believes that as long as he keeps walking Queenie will remain alive. So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or mobile phone Harold begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside.
Harold starts his walk drained by life, full of self loathing and incapable of mending his ruined marriage. Along the way he meets many strangers who stir up memories, causing Harold to have flashbacks of his inadequacy as a father and his short comings as a husband. But as he walks the characters he meets begin to unlock his dormant spirit and help him to regain a sense of promise. Harold remembers his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day and his joy in fatherhood allowing him to reconcile his losses and regrets. As for Maureen she begins to find herself missing Harold for the first time in years.
The prose is clear and simple and the novel while sad is ultimately uplifting. The last chapters deliver a couple of unexpectedly savage emotional blows but this is tempered with a sense of quiet celebration. I thought the novel quirky, sad and bitter sweet.
However, for some the novel did not inspire. Some felt the plot absurd, contrived and ridiculous with the language boring, overly sentimental and a bit twee.
But all in all I would, along with most others, recommend it as a good read !