Discussion location: The Atrium (UCB) Quote of dinner: “That’s the best fishcake in an ashtray I’ve ever eaten!”

Chosen by: Theresa

Reason for choice: Interesting and unusual title which was reminiscent of previous title (Wilfred).

Review: With yet another debut novel out of the hat, this 2012 Man Booker long-lister was (thankfully) yet another promising unveiling to the literary world. Not least because Rachel Joyce chose to voice her debut with an aging male protagonist, Harold Fry, she sets her story around his abrupt decision to walk the length of England to thank a terminally ill friend who he had let down years before. From the initially intriguing premise of Harold’s journey, the reader follows Harold through his innermost thoughts as he walks the country, completely unprepared in his yachting shoes.

Through the deeply personal first-person narrative, the reader genuinely feels that they are on a journey with Harold; sharing his negative thoughts, experiencing his ups and downs. Through this narrative, Joyce impressively masters the easy-read as well as the realistic fluctuation of human emotions. Repetitive in parts, eloquent in others; Joyce (or indeed Harold)’s tone is reflective of this. What’s more, Joyce cleverly reflects Harold’s mind in the level and volume of detail at the beginning of Harold’s journey—where his mind is awakened—to the sudden pace increase in the second half of his journey as he loses focus and things begin to blur into one. As the novel unravels, the reader cares inherently about Harold and hopes for a reconciliation of his relationships.

Through Harold’s musings, Joyce realistically explores the relationships in Harold’s life. From the mother who abandoned him to his equally difficult relationship with his son, it is evident that Harold’s past relationships have shaped his future. Moreover, Harold’s uncomfortable marriage to Maureen, where they have effectively become strangers, is characterised by them sleeping in separate rooms. In this, Joyce depicts how easily life can run away with you without you realising it’s happened. Through Harold’s relationship with, or rather, journey to Queenie, Joyce shows that it is not too late to take control and fix broken relationships. In Harold’s reconciliatory moment, this profoundly emotive novel manages to be honest yet delicate.

Having said that the novel’s power is its realism, it is difficult not to feel let down by the interruption of the media and the ‘pilgrims’ who join Harold in the third quarter of his journey. Although it is realistic in today’s social media society that somebody would have taken an interest in Harold’s journey, this element of the narrative is somewhat unrealistically written. Luckily, at the point where the novel threatened to descend into a circus, Harold makes the decision to leave the pilgrims (albeit some time after the reader had wished this section had been edited out).

Moreover, while some of Harold’s interactions are enjoyable (particularly the Slovakian doctor who just gets on with it), the initially powerful idea that the strangers around you are consumed by things that you have no idea of, quickly turns into an improbable number of crazy people that Harold encounters. As the novel unravels, the ordinariness of Harold and Maureen and their little lives (“the progress of her runner beans”) and the solitude with Harold is far more enjoyable than the extraordinary people he meets on the way.

An undeniably British novel, Joyce conveys the stiff upper lip, refusal to ask for help, and inability to express emotions that characterise the British. Compelling, powerful, and unusual; the questions is, how long before Hollywood cashes into a film adaptation?

Overall rating: 8/10

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