After four months of non Booker Prize fiction I have returned. The packages have started arriving in the post and finally I’ve started the Long List for 2012 and this year there was neither rhyme nor reason as to the order I would read them. The first one I picked up off the pile sitting on the shelf just happened to be this one, as we know I’m in for a 12 novel pilgrimage so it seems a good enough place to start.
Harold Fry is retired, an assuming man who never reached great heights in his schooling or career, a man who is sitting at the breakfast table ignoring his toast and wondering if he could mow the lawn again today (he’d done it the day before), when a mysterious letter arrives. A long lost work colleague has written from her death bed from Berwick-upon-Tweed, 627 miles away. Harold writes a polite reply and heads off to catch the morning return post. That’s when his pilgrimage begins.
A novel that reaches into the unassuming mind of Harold, his motivations, his fears, his regrets, his ordinariness and his life of being an under achiever. Could a retired man with no mobile phone, sailing shoes, minimal money and no training possibly walk the length of Britain to save a dying woman? Will it help him to understand the slippage in his love for his wife? His relationship with his only son?
So how was it that a truth that could make her smile once, and rest her head on his shoulder, would years later become the source of such resentment and fury? ‘You never held him!’ she had howled when things reached their worst. ‘All his childhood you never even touched him!’ It hadn’t been strictly true and he had said something along those lines; although she was right in essence. He had been too afraid to hold his own son. But how was it that once she had understood, and then years later she didn’t?
Although the story is peppered with interesting characters, motivators for Harold’s journey, and there are chapters speaking from his wife’s viewpoint, as well as her cries for help to the widower next door, it is the pilgrimage of Harold into his own past, confronting his demons, the places where he should have gone, his failing marriage, his darkest memories where the story rings most true. A “Heart of Darkness” trip by a retired brewery worker into his own self-loathing. Not a spiritual journey of Harold finding faith from a strictly religious sense (although we do have snow globes and other memorabilia of cathedrals) but a physical and spiritual journey of an ordinary man in 21st century Britain.
This is Rachel Joyce’s first novel (after a distinguished career writing numerous BBC4 radio plays) and a fine debut it is, a thoroughly enjoyable, although emotionally draining, work which is a worthy inclusion on any Booker Prize Long List. Hard to judge where it sits against the other 11 novels which I’m yet to tackle though. Next up “Philida” by Andre Brink.