I picked this book from audible on a whim. The premise, an older man walking across England to save an old acquaintance dying of cancer, had potential. A bonus was my love for Jim Broadbent.
What I found was a book that currently tops my list of all-time favorite novels. Rachel Joyce’s writing is brilliant and Jim Broadbent is perfect as Harold.
This story is haunted, but by whom and why is unclear. Part of Joyce’s brilliance is telling a simple story and holding what she tells and what she holds back in perfect balance.
Harold is recently retired, married to bitter Maureen, in a life that is going nowhere. Over breakfast a letter is delivered from Queenie Hennessy, a former colleague, who is dying of cancer. Harold is immediately awash in emotion, ashamed that she wrote to him after he had neglected to even try to find her all of these years. He writes her a note and walks out to post it, but he keeps on walking past all of the mailboxes, and then out of town. A chance encounter with a young woman in a garage convenience store leads him to decide to walk to Queenie in order to save her from the cancer.
Maureen is embarrassed and far from supportive. She lies to their neighbor, unable to admit Harold has taken off to save another woman. She mocks Harold when he calls, reminding him the farthest he has walked has been to the car in the driveway. Saddened, but undeterred, Harold continues on his mission.
Adrenaline drives him through the initial push, but reality sets in and only the social pressure of having told companions his plans keeps him going. Harold sheds pounds off his body and off his psyche as he walks. Almost immediately he begins remembering and we see that, not only is his relationship with his wife troubled, but he also experienced a troubled childhood. Joyce peels back the layers of Harold’s painful relationships, letting us in only as Harold is able to face each memory. Harold’s connection to nature plays a huge role in his psychic restoration. At the start of his walk he stays in guest houses, but hates the feeling of being within the walls. After an epiphany about the nature of pilgrimage, he sheds nearly all of his goods and begins sleeping outdoors or in barns. A discussion with a man in a bar at lunch leads to newspaper coverage of his story and a flock of pilgrims joining him on his journey, which soon becomes their journeys and power struggles ensue, all of which Harold tries to stay above. When the pilgrims finally leave him behind and continue to Queenie without him because he has insisted on taking a detour in order to keep a promise made early in his journey, Harold is first relieved, then lost in despair, which only worsens as he loses his way and find his detour was for nought. This was the hardest section of the novel to endure and hearkened to Jesus’ days of temptation in the desert.
Throughout the novel, the reader knows there is a big secret at the heart of the story–maybe more than one. Why is his relationship with Maureen so wrong? Does Queenie have something to do with it? Why is his relationship with his son so wrong? Does Queenie have something to do with it? When the answers come, they come crashing down, leaving me holding my breath to see if Harold would survive their revelation.
There are books from which I have drawn quotes that I want to remember forever, but this book was chock full of them. Harold’s insights are simple, beautiful, and true. His Unlikely Pilgrimage is a must read, and re-read, and re-read.