When the Man Booker Prize Long list was released in July, I went out and bought a few of the books. The Man Booker Long and Short list could possible renamed “Courtney’s birthday/Christmas list”, and still be very accurate. Want to find the best British fiction of the year? Go to the Man Booker lists, or the Orange Prize. So that’s what I do.
This is one of the books I bought, knowing almost nothing about it until I picked it up to read a few weeks ago. I kind of love picking up a book and having no expectations, no ideas of its writing style, genre, subject matter. I bought it based on it being on the Man Booker list, nothing else. I didn’t even read the sleeve copy before I bought it. A move like that could be disaster, but I have faith in the people who make these lists. And, it’s well deserved. I loved this book.
The plot is fairly straightforward and almost uneventful from the outside. A retired man, Harold Fry, gets a letter from a former co-worker/friend, Queenie. He hasn’t seen or talked to her in 20 years. She writes to tell him she is dying of cancer. He writes her a quick and un-emotional response and walks out to slip his letter into the post box. And somehow he just keeps walking, perhaps trying to just have a nice walk at first. He gradually realizes that his letter isn’t enough. There’s unfinished business between him and Queenie, and the letter can’t sum up what he wants to say to her or ask her. He stops at a garage/petrol station for a snack and starts talking to the girl who works there. She tells him that her aunt had cancer and how important it is to stay positive, believe the other person can get better, etc. Harold takes her idea to heart and he suddenly feels it entirely necessary to walk to see Queenie. He will walk and it will take a long time (he lives in Kingsbridge, over in the West Country, and Queenie is in a hospice at Berwick-on-Tweed, way up near Scotland) but as long as he is walking she will wait for him, and she will stay alive.
He continues his walk N.E., despite being completely unprepared. He is wearing yachting shoes, has no mobile phone or walking equipment. But he has made up his mind.
The rest of the book is the stress of this quest. There are good times and bad, there are inspiring people and hopeless people. Harold’s wife is completely thrown by his undertaking this epic journey to see another woman before she dies.
As he walks, Harold meets strangers and listens to their stories, he also examines his own memories of very painful parts of his life. He is often overwhelmed by the emotional experience just as much as the physical. I don’t want to say more about how everything unfolds, but I will say that I cried quite a few times through the book.
It’s a lovely book, quiet and subtle and beautiful. I really enjoyed reading it, despite the simple plot and the genuineness of it. It was refreshingly simple, actually.
The whole journey, Harold’s and the reader’s, is cathartic and allows an expression of emotion and a slow examination of life and our individual struggles and pains throughout. It’s really well done, the mirrored journeys. Harold slowly and methodically makes his way North and East. There are good days and bad. He stumbles and is injured; he gets back up and continues and things get better. Repeat. Sounds like life to me.
I’m sure there is a lot of religious significance in this book. Harold is a pilgrim after all. He acquires followers, who bicker among themselves and eventually leave him behind. He begins to fast at one point. Unfortunately, I am thoroughly uneducated in Christian (or any other) mythology, so I am not able to recognize these themes when I read them. I know that it loosely parallels the book Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, but I haven’t gotten around to reading that yet either. It’s not that high on the to do list, to be honest, because as important as it was to Christians in the 17th and 18th century, I’m not certain it would be of much interest to this 21st-century atheist. I don’t think it has the literary chops to make great reading, if you don’t believe in the ideology. I could be wrong though, so I’ll probably read it one day. I got through Paradise Lost, after all.
Since the religious symbolism was utterly lost on me, I read this book as something realistic, but simultaneously surreal. Surreal in the same way that a lot of what people do to cope with modern society seems surreal and inexplicable. But at the same time, you understand why they do it because there is no sane way to deal with what life is. Last year, a man was hitchhiking across America to work on a book about the kindness of people. That is surreal and strange. Then he was shot on the side of the road. Strange and ironic. Then it came out that he had injured himself to gain more publicity for the book. With reality like that in mind, nothing seems too incredible to be true. Harold Fry, even in undertaking this unexpected journey, seems to be just as normal and logical as anyone else who can see the world for what it is.