Joyce’s popular book wins out with substance over style
There is a lot to be said for simply-written prose. As my very favourite writer, Charles Bukowski, once said, “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” However, there is a fine line between prose that is simple and prose that is twee, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry veers dangerously close to the wrong side of that line.
That’s not to say that Rachel Joyce’s much-hyped novel, released in paperback earlier this year, isn’t worth sticking with. Although the writing at first appears a little too guileless, it gathers depth like tumbleweed as we follow the story of elderly retiree Harold Fry, who leaves his house to post a letter to an ailing old friend, and somehow finds himself on a 600-mile pilgrimage to visit her on foot (in his yachting shoes, no less). Believing, despite his prior lack of faith, that his trip will help to save a long-ago friend whom he owes a mysterious favour, Harold’s journey becomes one of self-discovery, as he unfurls not only stiff, underused limbs, but a lifetime of unresolved family conflicts, missed opportunities and regrets.
Sound depressing? It somehow isn’t. We witness a steady breaking down of the façade of British reserve; tiny cracks that begin to creak open into new gateways, both within Harold himself, and within the people he meets. There is something about this subject of the loosening of repressed instincts that is very powerful – also handled powerfully in J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which also focuses its lens on the minutiae of characters inhabiting small, terribly British towns. The collapse of formality; the irrepressible emergence of a story the small hand of comfort or sorrow, reaching out, for just a moment… this is subtly moving stuff.
Inevitably, Harold’s run of encounters with kind, understanding Brits can only last so long; as his pilgrimage somehow becomes an unlikely media hit, he is joined by those seeking less simple truths than himself. Small, crushing blows rain on Harold’s head, but with the never-failing heart of a kind man – a rare quality in a competitive world – Harold refuses to let anyone down, no matter if they do the same to him.
As Harold gains distance from his failing, stuff-upper-lip relationship with his wife, the book also explores how space can in fact bring people closer together; and how miracles may happen, but only where you least expect them to. Expect tears at the end (whether happy or sad, I’m not telling); some guy on the Bakerloo Line at Piccadilly Circus offered me his seat.
Despite the shaky start, it was a rare treat (both the book, and the seat).