Review of ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce

Available from Penguin Random House.

When Harold Fry, a nondescript, recently retired man living in Devon, receives a letter from his former colleague, Queenie Hennessey, telling him that she is dying in a hospice in Berwick, he composes a brief reply and sets off to the letter box to post it – only he walks past several letter boxes and decides to walk all the way to Berwick, in a pair of yachting shoes and without his mobile phone.  As you do.  The novel chronicles his journey, the people he meets on his way, his thoughts about his wife and son, his childhood and the job he has just left.   The plot is quirky, involving a lot of suspension of belief.   Harold himself is endearing, naive and innocent, yet growing in wisdom as the book progresses.  Unfortunately, his Stepford wife, Maureen, never really becomes real to me, but stays on the page as a sort of ‘any woman’.  Although I accepted, on paper, that she is working through her issues through housework, I expect a woman in the twenty-first century to have had a job at some point in her life.  That said, the way she and Harold verbally snipe at each in the first chapter is sharp and painful, even though it does not exactly lure the reader in.  Other characters come and go, as befits a story about a journey.

This novel, which is Rachel Joyce’s first, was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, won the UK National Book Award for New Writer of the Year and was also the best-selling hardback book in the UK from a new novelist in that year.  ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ is perfect, characters perfectly drawn, plot perfectly constructed, with hooks (such as Harold being teetotal) strategically placed, and all fitting perfectly into the Three Act Graph.  By and large, Rachel Joyce follows all The Rules, except – very occasionally – changing point of view mid-paragraph.  Her characters pontificate to themselves a lot, but that is in the nature of the scenario.  She shows that she can describe, with some wonderful depictions of changing English scenery, also that she can write dramatic encounters between characters, slowly and precisely, building up the tension and the emotion.


But, Dear Reader, I think you can sense that there is a but, although I can’t quite say what it is.  Maybe, as they say, it was me not you, Harold Fry, because I didn’t connect with you or your journey.  Maybe this book is too perfect.  Perhaps a few rough edges would have provided a point of connection.   There was a lot that might’ve happened in this book, but didn’t.  This can be a plotting strength, because it may mean that a writer is avoiding cliches, but ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage’ was, for me, a little dull.

As Maureen grew vegetables, and because it is difficult to think of any other suitable images, I’m ending with a few pictures of the last vegetables in my garden, struggling to keep growing in the lacklustre autumn sun and not drowning in the rain, dew and general wetness that clings to everything outside at this time of year.   There, you see, I can describe the natural environment too.

tomatoes beans cucumbers


Review of ‘In This House of Brede’ by Rumer Godden

Republished by Virago.

Nuns wearing Benedictine habits

Although not published until 1969, ‘In This House of Brede’ is set in the 1950s and was adapted for television in 1975.  As is explained at the very beginning of the book, it arose out of the author’s close contact with the Benedictine community at Stanbrook Abbey during a family crisis.  Involving intensive research into the Benedictine history, liturgy, music and traditions, it took her five years to write.  During this time, the abbess at Stanbrook asked, rhetorically, in her presence, why nobody ever wrote novels about nuns and she couldn’t bring herself to say that she was in the middle of doing just that.

The novel concerns – mainly – widow Philippa Talbot who, in middle age, gives up her successful civil service career to join the House of Brede.  Before entering the abbey as a postulant, she orders three whiskies at the local pub, and drinks them in the space of half an hour, only to find, when she eventually gets there, that she is required to kiss all her new sisters in religion.   She mentions to the abbess that she might smell of alcohol but there is no question that she can hold it.  Philippa is a character a reader can have confidence in – able, level-headed, not afraid of making hard, (but wise) choices- although it is apparent that some of the other nuns find her a threat.   The reader also shares the lives of other members of the community: the anguish of Sister Cecily, whose family and friends cannot understand her vocation, and put every obstacle in her way; the insecurities of Dame Catherine, who, to her surprise, is elected abbess, and, in time, becomes a more effective spiritual leader than sainted Mother Hester who preceded her.

‘In This House of Brede’ was the second book recommended to me by my beloved aunt in Canada (the other being Alan Bennett’s ‘The Uncommon Reader’ – see earlier review), a remarkable choice for someone who is not a Christian.  My aunt is also my Godmother, but she tells me that she didn’t dare say no when my mother asked her.  There is a wonderful photo of her holding me, draped in oceans of shawls,  at my Christening, with – apparently – my grandmother (out of the picture) telling her how to hold a baby.  She has been a very caring Godmother to me, especially after my own mother died.

Even though I read Rumer Godden’s ‘The Greengage Summer’ many years ago and found it  irritating, I enjoyed ‘In This House of Brede’ more than I have enjoyed any book for several months.  I always seem to get on better with the older books.  Over the last few days, I have pondered why and I cannot exactly put my finger on it, except that it appears to me that novels written in previous generations tend to generate characters, like Philippa Talbot, whom the reader can have confidence in, whereas contemporary writers are always encouraged to create characters who are flawed, and not just a little bit flawed either.   I get very frustrated with characters who get blind drunk and then do something totally stupid.  Older works also tend to be written upbeat, whereas nowadays dystopia is very much the fashion.  I  have enough to be depressed about in real life without taking on the troubles of a character in a book, who – after all – doesn’t actually exist.  But I seem to be in a minority of one here.