Longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a real gem. This novel is truly tender, and I came to grow fond of and care for Harold and Maureen, the main characters of the story. Retired, they live a quiet life in Kingsbridge in the south of England. One morning a letter arrives that will change their lives. A colleague Harold has not seen in twenty years, Queenie Hennessy, is terminally ill with cancer. After Harold has penned a reply and walks on his yacht shoes to the post box, something changes, and Harold gets this urge to keep walking. A chance encounter with a girl working in a petrol station spurs what will be Harold's pilgrimage, as he carries on walking, all the way towards Berwick-Upon-Tweed in the north of Scotland in the hopes of saving Queenie.
Maureen is left clueless behind. While Harold phones her to let her know what's going on, Maureen lives in denial about the whole situation, and feels forced to fend off the neighbour's questions regarding Harold's whereabouts. Does Harold love Queenie Hennessy?
As his pilgrimage progresses, Harold has to deal with more than merely nth degree blisters, hunger and unpredictable weather. All the people Harold meets on his way share part of their stories with him, and Harold feels it as a slight burden to get a peak into their lives. As he walks, Harold finally comes face to face with the problems in his marriage and in his life that he has been oppressing for twenty years. But when Harold's pilgrimage hits the news, Harold is blessed with co-pilgrims he didn't ask for who also claim to be walking to save Queenie.
Meanwhile, Harold's absence is forcing Maureen to take a good hard look at herself and their marriage. I love the friendship that grows between Maureen and the neighbour Rex, and the way Harold's absence becomes the catalyst for Maureen to come out of her shell.
This is overtly a story of a pilgrimage, but it is also the story of life as a pilgrimage. Harold's walk becomes a metaphor for his walk through life. On his walk he experiences moments of elation and great fate, he seemingly comes into his own: "He watched the squares of buttery light inside the houses, and people going about their business. He thought of how they would settle in their beds and try to sleep through their dreams. It struck him again how much he cared, and how relieved he was that they were somehow safe and warm, while he was free to keep walking" (p. 186). But he also suffers moments of extreme pain and doubt, and there are times when he can barely continue putting one foot in front of the other. And as the days go by, it becomes more and more questionable if the elderly man in yacht shoes can make it in time to save the dying Queenie.
The novel is also to a large degree a story about border crossing. Apart from the geographical border crossing of the walk itself, Harold also crosses all kinds of psychological borders; his walk is in a sense making him connect with nature and everyone in it."Again he felt in a profound way that he was both inside and outside what he saw; that he was both connected and passing through. Harold began to understand that this was also the truth about his walk. He was both a part of things, and not" (p. 188).
I loved this book. When I think back on the reading experience, I feel warm inside. I want to give Maureen and Harold a great big hug, and I want to join Harold on his pilgrimage, but maybe with better shoes. I think there is a lot to learn about acceptance, forgiveness and redemption in this book, and that it is never to late. It's no harder than putting one foot in front of the other.