Ms. Joyce’s novel, a sentimental nominee for this year’s Man Booker Prize, has a premise that is simple and twee. One day Harold receives a letter from an old acquaintance, Queenie Hennessy. Queenie is dying at a hospice that is 627 miles north of Harold’s home near the English Channel. When Harold reads the letter, he responds with a tearful “I um. Gosh.” Then he writes her a postcard and walks down his road to mail it. Then he keeps on going.
Harold (whose story was in part inspired by the terminal illness of Ms. Joyce’s father) will walk the entire length of England in hope of keeping Queenie alive. It’s hard to say whether this is more surprising to Harold or to his wife, Maureen. Harold and Maureen’s marriage went stale a long time ago, to the point where Harold thinks of her as “a wall that you expected to be there, even if you didn’t often look at it.” When Harold leaves home, Maureen is hurt enough to suggest that the estrangement was Queenie related. In a book that sometimes misleads and manipulates its readers, Ms. Joyce coyly feeds that jealousy flame.
“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” is not just a book about lost love. It is about all the wonderful everyday things Harold discovers through the mere process of putting one foot in front of the other. “The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other,” Ms. Joyce writes, in one of many, many iterations of this same thought, “and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time.”
Harold finds out that there is fresh air, scenic vistas and an open sky outside the confines of his unhappy home. He finds out that the little things in life matter. He finds that he is stronger than he realized, even if the book devotes more than enough attention to a weeping blister that develops as he walks. Twee alert: He makes the whole trek while wearing yachting shoes.
As he travels, Harold begins to marvel at how much he has been missing. He dredges up painful old memories: about his and Maureen’s son, David, who speaks to his mother but not his father; about Harold’s own mother, who abandoned him; about the sweetness of Queenie and the way Harold betrayed her trust. The sweetness of Queenie is, like many minor details in this novel, truly literal. When they worked at the same brewery, Harold as a sales rep and Queenie as a bookkeeper, she carried candy in her handbag just for him. There was a Mars bar that he still remembers with affection.
Ms. Joyce has been an actress and written many radio plays. That background is apparent in the way her story is structured. As Harold progresses northward, he encounters a series of colorful walk-on characters, each of whom gets a scene or two. In the book’s sole nod to satire Harold attracts the press and then acquires a group of followers who think of themselves fellow pilgrims. Some of them wear “Pilgrim” T-shirts. One wears a gorilla suit. The march gets a Facebook page. Yes, if you look for Harold Fry on Twitter you will find him.
These publicity-seeking pilgrims who are marching to save Queenie squabble about tactics. They talk about staying on message. Eventually they decide that Harold is a hindrance. So they leave him behind. He is delighted to be rid of them.
Through the cumulative effect of all these lukewarm adventures Harold begins to feel like a new man. He rediscovers his long-buried need for Maureen, and the amorous feelings are mutual; soon each is remembering what it was to be young and in love. They ultimately come to understand that after 47 years together they love each other in a newly deep till-death-do-us-part way.
The end of this book is much more powerful than the rest. Once the mortally ill Queenie becomes a person and not just an abstraction, death and fear become part of the story. Although Ms. Joyce does build one climactic event around the smashing of glass clown figurines, she gives her story unexpected seriousness as Harold reaches the hospice he has gone to find. Yet the sad, grotesque aspects of these final scenes are balanced by a sense of the miraculous that seems credible and hard won.
“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” takes its opening epigraph from John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It takes the stirring spirituality of its ending from Bunyan too. In between Ms. Joyce’s book loosely parallels “The Pilgrim’s Progress” at times, but it is very much a story of present-day courage. She writes about how easily a mousy, domesticated man can get lost and how joyously he can be refound.