I first heard of Rachel Joyce's debut novel a few months ago--folks on Goodreads were talking it up, and so was my Random House sales rep. Then, earlier this month at BEA, it had earned one of the coveted spots on the Editors' Book Buzz panel, where I was lucky enough to snag a copy of it. I had a hunch that it would make its way into my suitcase for vacation reading, and test-driving the first chapter proved that hunch correct. As it turns out, it provided me one of the most enjoyable vacation reads I've ever had!
Over breakfast one day, recently retired pub man Harold Fry receives a letter informing him that his old friend and colleague, Queenie Hennessey, is dying of cancer. He struggles to write a response, without knowing quite what to say, and he walks out of the house to post it at the closest letterbox. The thing is, when he reaches it, he thinks he can come up with a better response, so he keeps walking to the next letterbox. Then the next one. Then the next one. Once he recovers from his reverie, of what to write, he realizes he's walked out of the village.
Stopping at a petrol station, a chance encounter with a young employee there convinces him that really, the best way to do this thing is to deliver the message to Queenie in person, no matter that Harold isn't a walker, he's not in very good shape or wearing appropriate shoes for the endeavor, that Queenie is over 500 miles away, or that Harold's wife, Maureen, might have something to say about his decision. Instead of turning homeward to retrieve suitable items for such a journey (oh, you know, things like maps, water, his mobile, and a sense of direction), he calls his wife from the station to announce his intentions and heads out in a direction that he hopes is northerly.
Along his journey, Harold finds support and succour in the unlikeliest of people, and before long his pilgrimage attracts nationwide attention and more than a few hangers-on. As he learns to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what the terrain or the state of his poor, blistered appendages, he has plenty of time to meditate on his life, his marriage, his son, his friendship with Queenie, and how he's mostly made a muck of things. At home, Maureen undergoes similar bouts of introspection, and discovers, much to her surprise, that one by one, she has gradually revoked a lifetime of recriminations towards Harold.
This is a book that has so many funny things on the surface that it might be easy to miss the emotional depth and universal human insights that it provides. While I definitely laughed out loud while reading of the hapless Harold's exploits, more than once was I moved to tears by the wave of humanity that Joyce readily taps into. Most of the reviews I've read of this book compare it to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand,
and while I can see that to a certain degree, I think the more appropriate comp is The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise
, where the whimsy of that peculiar ensemble of characters is matched only by the poignancy the story ultimately delivers. I also love that it's a book whose main characters are all of retirement age: there seem so few really good books who feature that demographic that it always stands out when I encounter it.
To say more would spoil the sense of anticipation that I'd want any reader to have when embarking on this novel, so instead I'll just share a few passages that resonated with me as I read. But please: do yourself a favor and find a copy of this book to read asap!
"The kindness of the woman with food came back to him, and that of Martina. They had offered him comfort and shelter, even when he was afraid of taking them, and in accepting he had learned something new. It was as much of a gift to receive as it was to give, requiring as it did both courage and humility."
"He wished the man would honor the true meanings of words, instead of using them as ammunition."
"He wished no one had mentioned religion. He didn't object to other people believing in God, but it was like being in a place where everyone knew a set of rules and he didn't. After all, he had tried it once and found no relief. And now the two kind ladies were talking about Buddhists and world peace and he was nothing to do with those things. He was a retired man who had set out with a letter."
NB: This book is already published in the UK, and Random House publishes the US edition on 2 July 2012. I got a complimentary ARC of the book at BEA this year.