Rachel Joyce's debut novel, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” explores the vast blandness of a man who has knowingly lived a mediocre life. Harold, a recent retiree, takes the simple task of mailing a reply to an old friend and turns it into an unintended, emotional pilgrimage. He leaves behind a loveless marriage, an absent son, and his tragically unspectacular life with one grand intention: to walk 600 miles to save his old friend from an inoperable form of cancer.
As Harold begins his journey, it is apparent he is jumping head first into something he has no knowledge of or experience with. Harold's blind commitment to his emotions is reminiscent of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” a biography of Christopher McCandless. The parallels are somewhat unsettling, as both men strike out on their respective journeys with little to no supplies and a slightly naïve sense of their mortality. The esoteric experience drives them and gives them their raison d'être.
Though the midpoint of the novel begrudgingly moves along — in a similar gait to Harold's growing weariness — the reader obliges to continue due to the representation of the turbulent and sometimes painful human experience. Joyce's development of Harold as a simple, flawed character makes him endearing and as a fellow human being, you cannot help but root for his success, even when failure seems to be the only option. The author supplies the reader with descriptive, yet undeveloped backstories that have gaping holes, suggesting that Harold's life is filled with much more than originally assumed.
Harold is compelled to continue his journey through chaos and destitution by way of remembering. Like anyone who has drifted into their thoughts while driving or wandering aimlessly, Harold is plagued by memories that he had not visited in many years. Likewise, in his absence, Harold's wife Maureen wonders why and how she lived so many years as a distant, disconnected spouse. While the connections between the characters come off as disjointed at times, Joyce gives just enough detail to make you feel like a bystander to a private conversation, intrigued by the intimate details of Harold and Maureen's swirling, cloudy lives.
Like any great, memorable novel, this one can lead you to contemplate a retrospective of your own life and question the paradigm shifts everyone experiences at some point. Rightfully so, the book was on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, quite a feat for a debut novel. Joyce's narrative of Harold's experiences is presented in a simple, unpretentious way that makes this a quick, straightforward read, but not without leaving you pondering how you might react to a distant, vague letter from a long-lost friend.