Discussion: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Alex, Lora and I discuss what a revelation Rachel Joyce’s debut novel is. This unassuming story has immense emotional weight without being melodramatic, and left us in tears at the end – something we weren’t quite expecting when we began reading it.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Alex, Lora and I discuss what a revelation Rachel Joyce’s debut novel is. This unassuming story has immense emotional weight without being melodramatic, and left us in tears at the end – something we weren’t quite expecting when we began reading it.

Lora: Hello!

Alex: Hi everyone!

Laurie: So, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Quiet but a revelation, no?

Indeed. A realm of beautiful revelations, in fact.

Lora: Absolutely. And beautifully written.

Alex: I loved that it reminded me to look at the small things.

Laurie: It’s a reminder of so many things.

Lora: Harold is one of my favourite fictional characters of all time.

Alex: I felt inspired by him: that he learned so much about himself and his limitations at such a ripe old age, and he didn’t feel fictional.

Laurie: That was a concern to me. I thought: Is this wise, to be picking a book with a retired man as the central character? But he really is Everyman, and I think anyone can relate to him, so I’m glad you feel that way!

Lora: Everything about him was relatable – from the physical pain and exhaustion he endured, to the struggles he had with his personal relationships throughout his life. I think Joyce nailed it.

Alex: And the difficulty he had in facing tough emotions, burying them under the carpet and only being able to embrace them when he finds the space and peace of the open road.

Laurie: I think that goes back to something we’ve touched on before in our discussions about other books and other characters: the feeling of not growing up somehow, of always having the same problems and concerns not matter what the age. That’s what makes Harold so relatable, I think. Would you agree?

Lora: Yes, definitely. I certainly saw that in his reflections on his mother.

Alex: I think that’s one of the qualities I like best about my favourite characters – that they seem ageless or there’s always something that surprises me about the way they act and their age. It first struck me when I saw my 80-year-old great aunt going up the stairs two at a time, and she turned to me and said “What? You didn’t think I could do that?”

Laurie: Ha!

Lora: I love that!

Alex: I’ve loved being encouraged to question age ever since.

Laurie: It’s a surprise and a revelation that we all have the same problems, that we are so similar, even though we do learn as we go. As Harold learns on his journey. And I think that’s what Harold recognizes so beautifully about the people he meets along the way.

Lora: That never ceases to amaze me. It’s so easy to forget, but we really are all connected through the experiences we have. The most isolating moments we experience? Someone else is probably going through something similar somewhere else.

Alex: And love seeing his perception shift – and in parallel to his wife’s. One minute everything is his fault, and through allowing memories to come back in their entirety, not just as the way they chose to remember them, their understanding changes.

Laurie: Absolutely. As if, in being apart, they have the chance to break away from the patterns they’ve fallen into and gain perspective as to what really happened and to grow closer again.

Alex: The people he meets are perfect postcards themselves, each marking a new understanding and experience.

Laurie: Yes. And they’re a chance for Harold to reflect his own experiences back on himself.

Lora: Those scenes where he literally tried to run from his memories, to escape them, was such a revelation. But it was such a pivotal part of his journey – and Maureen’s as well – to stop and let those painful moments catch up to see them clearly for what they really were.

Alex: Absolutely.

Lora: The two of them spent so much time trying to avoid each other and everything they went through.

Alex: She needed his absence to relive them properly and realize her actions.

Laurie: Sometimes facing up to yourself is the hardest thing of all.

Alex: I was concerned about her friendship with Rex; I was protective of Harold!

Lora: I felt the same!

Laurie: They were getting quite close!

What a lovely man, that Rex.

Laurie: He was. And he had such interesting things to say about grief: How it was like a hole that, at first, you kept falling into, then you learned eventually to walk around it…

Yes, I loved that.

He was very open. I found what he said comforting.

Laurie: And that’s what I loved about Joyce’s writing. It was so straightforward and unaffected in many ways. So not melodramatic.

Alex: Me, too. Taking something so messy and big and making it digestible. There’s no ego in it.

Lora: I was trying to explain her writing to a friend last night. And I found myself telling her it progressed so organically.

Laurie: It was so British in a way, would you say, Alex?

Alex: I agree. It seemed very matter of fact on the surface, which is quite a British trait, and Harold, obviously has many traditionally British traits. And in terms of the writing, I think it was quietly confident and charming, which of course, I would like to think of as British, haha – she didn’t use long words for the sake of showing off!

Laurie: Ha! Yes, and yet that matter of factness disguised such vast depths of emotions.

Alex: That’s what makes the emotional parts hit harder, isn’t it?

Definitely! That juxtaposition. Which may be why all three of us actually SOBBED at the end.

Lora: Absolutely.

Alex: There were a few moments for me actually…

Lora: I haven’t cried at a book like this in awhile. I was actually worried my neighbours would hear.

Laurie: Did it catch you off guard? It did me.

Alex: I was kind of expecting it. I had goosebumps for a while by that point.

Lora: It did. Funny, because I think a lot of Harold’s emotions caught him off guard as well.

Laurie: Agreed. He cried a number of times. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to be so immersed emotionally. To cry to that extent – seriously SOBBING! And I’m an emotional person. Cry at the drop of a hat.

Lora: So am I.

Alex: I cry when it’s least expected. I’m normally fine in typically emotional situations like weddings. Makes me feel cold sometimes.

Laurie: This whole story makes me look at people differently. Makes me wonder what their stories are. Those confessional moments were so strong.

Alex: I know. And after such tragedy it makes you think you have to take what compassion you can wherever you find it.

Laurie: Definitely. And give it, because you never know what someone is going through.

Lora: There were so many questions to be answered by the end of the story, I was quite amazed at how Joyce brought it all together without any melodrama

Alex: She certainly did tie the threads together well. It was as if Harold and Maureen had been on different journeys throughout the book and finally found themselves on the same street.

Laurie: Exactly what I was going to say.

Alex: It was so interesting that the crux of it – visiting Queenie – ended up being something so different. The journey is the destination and all that.

And what happens along the way may be so different than what you imagine. The whole darkest before the dawn thing.

Alex: He realized that the compassion they gave each other earlier in life was enough.

Laurie: And that you learn something from everyone you meet somehow. That they each give you something. P.S. I loved Marina.

Alex: Me, too! So hard on the outside and soft on the inside!

Lora: She was brilliant. And refreshingly unexpected.

A great contradiction.

Laurie: Yes. And burst the stereotype, as did so many of them.

Alex: Joyce also used the letters and postcards so interestingly – so little said, so much on the cards, then so much more revealed in the letters.

Lora: And Joyce integrated them so seamlessly.

Laurie: I enjoyed the way she incorporated those small but incredibly telling details – just the revelation of what was in Harold’s drawer says so much about him.

Lora: I know. And the little details Maureen began to notice in the photo albums. *Tear*

I know!!

Yes! So far off from what they actually remember! It’s really quite brilliant how everything comes together so deceptively simply.

Lora: Such subtle yet powerful revelations. I’m a big fan of Joyce now; can’t wait to read her next book.

Alex: Me, too. I really loved the catharsis of this one.

Laurie: So glad you enjoyed it! Well, next time we’ll be discussing our September Book Club Pick, Caitlin Moran’s provocative How To Be a Woman! Until then!

Can’t wait for it!

Alex: Me, neither! Thanks, ladies.

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