Wow! This is such a brilliant book. It was so good, I didn’t want it to end. It was joyful, desperately sad (yes, I cried), realistic, hopeful without being twee and incredibly well written. A debut novel, Booker-prize listed.
It’s the story of Harold, who 6 months after his retirement hears that someone he worked with twenty years previously is dying of cancer at the other end of the country. He pops out to post a very simple letter by way of reply but then just keeps walking… all the way from the South coast to Berwick on Tweed. Unprepared, unfit and completely undone by all the losses he has experienced in his life, Harold’s pilgrimage becomes part review of his whole life and part-restoration.
Rachel Joyce observes people incredibly well. The characters are very richly drawn but come alive by the little details that speak volumes. It reads, I think, like an Alan Bennett monologue.
There were two personal reasons why I loved this book and why you might not.
Firstly I’ve done similar ‘pilgrimages’ on my bike up and down Britain and from one side to the other – so the kind of weird reality that sets in when you are on that kind of a journey really rang true for me. Also I just thoroughly enjoyed all the place descriptions and the (often hilarious) encounters he had with the mad, the sad and the bad (very few of the later, an awful lot of the first two catagories). I loved it that people joined him, even though they were bonkers and trying to work out their own issues and even though that was the most uncomfortable part of the story to read. I love it that he tried to find places inside himself to keep all the confidences and secrets and pains other confided in him.
It isn’t a straight-forward story, don’t imagine that he strides confidently across the country towards resolution and redemption. There are days on end when he feels joy and strength and freedom but there are long agonising periods when he is completely lost and utterly uncertain of his way (in every sense, not just geographically). This is so true to life, I wanted to cheer. But he does learn to ‘attend’ (in the sense of observing, listening and loving not serving) to the beauty and provision and people around him and this opens up life for him in unexpected ways.
The second reason I really liked it is because I’m the right age to enjoy it. I talked about it with my daughter but in her mid twenties I think all that review of life stuff would be lost on her. It think you have to be over 50 and looking back over long relationships to really connect with Harold’s story.
Did the book have a message – yes certainly, but it wasn’t laboured. ‘Life is often rubbish but ultimately forgiveness and love are the only things that make a difference’. Even though Harold was not a man of faith and did not become one, ‘pilgrimage’ was exactly the right word.
Painful, funny, so, so vividly drawn, I was left feeling I should put Harold and Maureen on my Christmas card list or pop in to see them when I’m next on the South Coast. Thank you, Rachel Joyce, it was a gift of a book.