The Unlikely Pilgrimage , by Rachel Joyce
There comes a point in time when one has to do what one has to do. That’s precisely what this tale is all about. Harold Fry is an old bloke who continues to lead a mundane life. One day, he gets a mail that upsets the status quo of his blank , bland existence. Reading the letter, he learns that his long forgotten colleague/ friend, Queenie, is suffering from Cancer. He writes a half baked response and decides to walk to the post box to post it. It just so happens that when he reaches the post box, he feels that he should walk a little more, a little further before posting it.
And just like that, he decides that he would walk all the way to meet her in her hospital. Feeling pumped up by that spontaneous decision, he calls the hospital and informs the nurse to tell Queenie that he’s on his way to see her and that he’s walking it all the way there. He asks the nurse to inform Queenie to hold on till he makes it.
With that , a wonderful journey begins. Harold believes that he can walk the many miles (600 odd, to be precise) and also that Queenie would continue to survive her battle against her terminal illness. Caught unawares because of the spur of the moment decision, Harold is not equipped, both physically and equipment wise to endure the long trek. He doesn’t let that bother him. He constantly keeps reminding himself that all he needs to do is walk. One step at a time.
As Harold conquers each mile, we are introduced to the details of his life. Harold’s marriage to his wife, Maureen, is strained at best and is left hanging by a thread. The crux of the tension is around the fact that their only child had alienated himself from the parents. Maureen holds Harold responsible for that separation.
As Harold struggles to fill his heart with hope that would help him fuel his walk, Maureen is annoyed by the decision. The couple drift further apart because of the walk. The few exchanges between them are strained and colder than usual. Harold steers forward. Maureen struggles to cope up.
Along the way Harold meets many folks who are as different as different could be. He manages to see something unique about them. He is greeted by both encouragement for his courage to embark on such a journey and there are folks who express their concern around the pointlessness of the exercise. Doubts start to plague Harold.
The rest of the tale is a warm telling of the journey ahead. Does Harold make it all the way? Does Queenie live long enough to keep her end of the bargain? Will David ever reconcile with his folks and join them again? Will the couple’s marriage survive this tug of separation?
The unlikely pilgrimage is a refreshing read about the human spirit. We are emotional beings and not all of us are bound by the laws of reasoning and physics. We do things because we want to. We do things because we associate actions to faith. We believe in things because we have nothing else to bank on. We hope that our faith gets rewarded. We are plagued by doubts and there are days when we give up. There are those days when we conquer our doubts and march ahead. These traits make us human and it is fantastic and wonderful to remain human.
The further Harold walks, the clearer his thoughts become and unlike ever before, he finally manages to reminisce upon the course that his life had taken. He’s a man left with regrets and has a nice line of sight of things that were. I’ve seen this phenomenon in real life. We do what it takes to cope up with events springing in our lives. What we do to cope is different but the mechanism is a standard template of sorts. Do things to distract the self. Keep at it and have a moment of pristine catharsis. The book captures this moment beautifully.
Two thumbs and a definite read.