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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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Book review: Jason Burke – On the Road to Kandahar

Road to Kandahar
OK, so I am a little late on this one. Jason Burke’s ‘On the Road to Kandahar’ was published nearly eight years ago back in 2006.

Back in 2006, a number of very well respected authors and critics reviewed it.

Jon Snow writing in The Observer commented:

“Burke is not the first to identify the folly of mythologising al-Qaeda into a Soviet-scale monolith with a capacity to destroy the West. But what he does more effectively than most is to use the personal experience of a decade and a half of reporting across the Islamic world to identify the consequences of the West’s flawed response to 9/11.”

Leni Wild writing for IPPR commented:

“Burke highlights the huge diversity that exists in the Islamic world. Whether in Kurdistan, Kabul or Kashmir he encounters a full spectrum of beliefs, worldviews and perspectives…What makes this book stand out is that he does not overlook the radical and destructive use of Islam in various regions. Suicide bombings, honour killings and the other acts of violence carried out by some Islamic militants are all described as ‘abhorrent acts’ which are used to send public messages to communities.”

And so I too add my list to the names of those, mainly on the left, who have enjoyed and I dare say even learnt a bit reading Burke’s second book.

What inspired me about this book though was not Burke’s incredible insight as described by Snow or Wild, the self-evident wonderful use of flowing near poetic language or even his admirable ability to summarize insurmountably complex issues but his ability to draw the very real human side out in each of his anecdotes.

Talking to an unrepentant failed suicide bomber in a cramped prison cell Burke resists the temptation to throw around cheap generalised adjectives – at no point do you read that he was ‘radicalised’ ‘indoctrinated’ ‘alienated’. Instead Burke encourages you to see what he sees – the moustache that ‘looks like it could be used to clean shoes’, the drawn out expressions in tired faces, or the incongruous western clothing worn.

Real expressions, clothes and facial hair worn by real people.

Although the theme of the book is an extension of his first book, ‘Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam’ (2003), the theme for this follow up is much human orientated. Whilst his first book explored how the development of Al-Qaeda as a concept influenced both people and institutions, this latter book flips this analysis and looks at how people interact with different concepts within Islam – including the globalised jihadist ideology associated with Al-Qaeda.

It is this deeply personal approach that makes ‘On the Road to Kandahar’ so accessible even when exploring subjects such as suicide bombings.

Written in the first person Burke encourages a trust in the description of the flawed and multifaceted people he meets along his travels because of his own willingness to acknowledge and laugh at his own flawed and multifaceted approach to war journalism.

As well as the often farcical situations he puts himself into, you’re also exposed to his thoughts in deeper more poignant moments. One of which that stands out in my mind and sets Burke apart from other gung-ho macho war correspondents is when, on returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, he openly talks of having to step outside overcome by the emotion after seeing young girls back in school.

It is a genuinely touching moment in a book dominated by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

‘On the Road to Kandahar’ takes you on a journey to Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Britain, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and back to Kurdistan and Pakistan and without realising you pick up snippets of history and politics along the way. But unlike much of Burke’s articles or his first book, you feel that the politics, history and social analysis are just footnotes to help him better describe his time, his passion and his love/hate relationship with all that he has seen and all the people he has met over the last two decades.

I was once told that an argument is only as strong as the opposing view it takes on. What Burke has done is compiled a wonderful celebration of the diversity of life that is framed in some of the darkest contexts that the last two decades have produced.

For this alone – it is a literacy triumph. 

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