Book review: ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce

This is a copy of a book review I wrote for the UK edition of ehospice news.

Harold Fry
If ever a fictional book has illustrated the importance of ‘spiritual care’ as an integral part of palliative care, it is Rachel Joyce’s debut novel, ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’.

Joyce’s heart-warming novel charts the unlikely story of Harold Fry. Harold is a retired Englishman who embarks on 600 mile walk from Devon to Berwick to visit an old friend who is dying of cancer. The walk, or pilgrimage, increasingly becomes interlinked with Harold’s own grief and spiritual pain as he becomes convinced that by undertaking such a walk he can not only keep his old friend alive, but also repent for the mistakes he has made in years gone by.

Although Harold’s friend Queenie is in a hospice with terminal cancer, the reader only gets brief glances at the physical, spiritual and social pain that she is experiencing. Joyce alludes to a lack of family or friends but this, it feels, is only mentioned to add impetus to the protagonist’s pilgrimage.

Indeed, it is Harold, and at times his wife Maureen, who the reader becomes best acquainted with. On a base level the reader begins to empathise with Harold’s tortured emotions towards Queenie and this only heightens throughout the walk.
From the beginning of the walk and the book the reader is aware of a pain lying just underneath the surface of Harold. Only as the walk, or as Joyce sometimes refers to it, ‘the journey’, develops do we begin to understand the nature and severity of Harold’s pain. Throughout the book one cannot help but draw parallels between Harold’s journey and other patient’s journey towards death.

What stands out in this novel though is the way Joyce cleverly explains to the reader how pain goes so much further than just the pain experienced by the patient. Friends, family and, of course, colleagues can be, and often are, effected by death and the process of dying.

Using this holistic understanding of pain, understanding it as more than just physical but also spiritual and social that can and does impact on friends and family as well the patient, Joyce takes the reader on a powerful emotional journey that is sadly too often out of reach in other novels that touch on issues related to death.

Using Harold’s well-being as an extended metaphor Joyce cleverly intertwines Harold’s hopes, emotions and fears with those of the readers and lets you experience the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Harold’s walk.

The context of which this journey is undertaken – the quintessential English landscape – is, I believe, mistaken by many as being the central theme to the book. Indeed in the reviews published on The Guardian or The New York Times, the life-affirming story and the societal implications of what it means to be ‘English’ or ‘Spiritual’ in the 21st century are drawn out as key themes.

For me, these were side-issues all playing in and relating to how we understand death and the role someone’s spiritual pain can play in that process. I took from the novel, and I believe this was intended as a key theme, the universality of spiritual concern and pain – something which palliative care practitioners have been advocating about for a number of years now.

This is illustrated in the fact that the issues around spiritual pain are shown from the perspective of an atheist (Harold). Regardless of religious beliefs we all have the potential to feel spiritual well-being and of course, pain.

Even when faced with the ultimate twist in the final chapters Joyce still refuses to deviate from what I felt to be the core theme of the book – Harold’s deeply personal anguish and how this not only impacts on those around him, but also on his own ability to be at one with himself.

‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ remains one of the few fictional books I have read that deals with spiritual pain around dying adequately. This is not to say it deals with these issue comprehensively, merely that it acknowledges it to be a central part of what it is that makes us human.

It is perhaps this unlikely source of shared humanity that makes this first novel such a triumph and pleasure to read despite the difficult subjects it addresses.

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One response to “Book review: ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2/5) | Taking on a World of Words

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