The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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June 2, 2013 by talkaboutyork

Reading books has become what reading women’s magazines used to be to me – excruciating.

Back then I worked in PR and every time I read a magazine, I could never simply luxuriate in the words or pictures, getting swept away with the aspiration of it all. I analysed each page. I took note of which companies were getting coverage or which editor was looking after a section or what type of stories they were running. I invariably put the magazine down feeling like a bit of a failure. That somehow I hadn’t manage to get my own clients enough column centimetres or that I should have known that in the May issue they’d be covering ‘All things purple!’ when my own client had just the purple thing that could, and should, have been included.

Now that I am attempting to write a novel, reading books leaves me feeling much the same way. I can’t just race through a book getting lost in the story. Instead I notice the mix of dialogue and description and action, the subtleties used to describe something, the lightness of speech, the pace, the characterisation. It all becomes exhausting. Again, I find myself playing out my own novel in my head comparing it. And it always seems to fall short.

But I have just finished reading a book which has made me question my own abilities so much I’m almost afraid to look at my novel as the contrast will be so stark.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is the tale of a retired man who learns that a friend is ill. While popping out to send the friend a letter, he decides to keep walking. And as he walks, he learns about himself, while coming to terms with his past. It is simple, yet deep in a quiet way that will stay with you long after you’ve read it. Joyce’s lightness of prose seems so effortless. A few words paint stunningly sharp pictures. The characters are alive, people you are sure you might know in real life. There is no wastage or excess. Every word counts and are beautifully poetic in their simplicity.

There are many deep messages you can take from the book – about marriage and regrets and children and living. But the thing that had the most profound impact on me is Harold Fry’s interaction with strangers and the light he shines on the inherent goodness in all people.

Yesterday, after reading the book, I walked out of my front door and saw a man standing in the middle of our street. He looked nasty. He had a hard, angry face. His stance was aggressive, tattoed arms folded tightly across his chest, head tilted forward, jaw jutting. I wasn’t sure if he was drunk or looking to cause trouble. He kept eyeing the children and I up as we walked towards him. I felt myself trying to shove the boys behind me protectively, like a mother duck taking her ducklings under her wing.

But then I tried to be like Harold Fry and look for the goodness in him. It was hard to see, but I allowed myself to relax and smile at him as I walked past. He didn’t smile in return, but looked back down the road where a woman was turning the car around and coming back to pick him up. I realised then that he wasn’t necessarily a bad man out to cause trouble, just an impatient man wanting to get on with his day.

It’s not often I read books that I actually take note of the page numbers so that I can revisit a particular line, but with this book I did. Like this bit that is so gentle, it moved me to tears:

A car drew up next to him, and threw water the length of his trousers. It didn’t matter. He could not get wetter. The passenger window steadily rolled downwards. There was a warm smell of new leather and heated air. Harold stooped his head. 

The face on the other side was young and dry. ‘Are you lost? Do you need directions?’ it said. 

‘I know where I’m going.’ The rain stung Harold’s eyes. ‘But thank you for stopping.’

‘Nobody should be out in weather like this,’ insisted the face. 

‘I made a promise,’ said Harold, straightening up. ‘But I am grateful to you for noticing me.’

I am grateful to you for noticing me. How much better the world would be if more people noticed, or if people noticed that others noticed and thanked them for it.

And this bit, which was my favourite from the whole book:

‘He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had done so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human. He walked so surely it was as if all his life he had been waiting to get up from his chair.’

When I read words like these, I feel ridiculous for even considering the notion that I could write. I could never be as poetic and insightful. And I wish that I would be like Rachel Joyce.

But more than that, I wish I could be like Harold Fry. So I’ll start with that and keep walking until I reach my destination.

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4 thoughts on “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

  1. Potty Mummy says:

    I just read this book too, and loved it. It is so beautifully written, in every sense of the word. And do you know what I thought of when I was reading it – can’t remember at which point, but I do remember that it happened – your post, a while back, about being part of the human race, nothing extraordinary, but extraordinary for all that. Keep going. Rachel Joyce has had years to hone her craft, whilst you – and I – are just starting out. As Dory said, ‘just keep swimming…’

    Very much looking forward to catching up with you at BritMums. x

  2. Just keep swimming…..exactly. Can’t wait for Britmums – hope you’re going to be at the writing tracks

  3. I read a review of that book, and it’s on my list to read. You’ve made me want to go straight to the library and pick it up!

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