The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, Review: Moving

Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is certainly a good novel, but I am not sure it was deserving of its Man Booker Prize long-listing.

Rachel Joyce The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry Synopsis:

Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.

Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.

And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy. 

Genre: Drama, Romance, Literature, Mystery, Audio

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Of the dozen titles long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was one of only two that really interested me. I expected to be gushing over this novel in a similar vein to the gloriously life affirming, witty and charming Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Do not get me wrong, this is good novel, but there will be no gushing.

One feels deep empathy for Joyce’s lead characters as they travel on their respective journeys of self-discovery. However, not necessarily a genuine affection for them. At times I found myself frustrated with Harold and Maureen, almost to the extent that they were frustrated with themselves.

Joyce did however provide some beautifully descriptive and poignant observations about human behaviour that I identified with. This a very subtle but moving tale about the search for meaning in life.

“It was not a life, if lived without love.”

Audiobook narration

The  audiobook narration by Jim Broadbent was first class. He differentiated between characters extremely well without overacting. His narration enhanced the book experience for me (listen to a sample).

However, the humour was dry and understated, producing fewer laugh out loud moments than I was hoping for.  Joyce lost some momentum (and my engagement) in the middle passages but came home strong with a gut wrenching conclusion. Have the tissues at the ready… The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a much darker and sadder story than I had anticipated.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is a good novel, but I am not sure it was necessarily deserving of its long-listing for the Man Booker Prize.

Finally, I pose a question for the literary officianados — is the title of this novel a nod to Byron’s poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage?

My Rating

The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing  4 / 5  — Overall 3.75

Get your copy of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry from:

Amazon | Bookshop US

Movie adaptation tie-in
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry movie, starring Jim Broadbent and Penelope Wilton was released in April 2023.

Related Reading: Geraldine Verne’s Red Suitcase by Jane Riley | Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson | When I First Held You by Anstey Harris | The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

About the Author, Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestsellers The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, The Music Shop and a collection of interlinked short stories, A Snow Garden & Other Stories. Her books have been translated into thirty-six languages and two are in development for film. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Rachel was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 2012 and shortlisted for the ‘UK Author of the Year’ 2014.

Rachel has also written over twenty original afternoon plays and adaptations of the classics for BBC Radio 4, including all the Bronte novels. She moved to writing after a long career as an actor, performing leading roles for the RSC, the National Theatre and Cheek by Jowl. She lives with her family in Gloucestershire.