Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Pilgrimage novel hard road to travel
EVER since Chaucer's pilgrims set foot on the road to Canterbury -- and maybe even before -- authors have used the physical trek to structure their storytelling.
A character sets out on a quest, implausible or not, and tells his tale to the people he meets or listens to their stories. Along the way, our protagonist develops into a better person and the reader realizes the journey was more than physical; it was a journey into the character's soul.
Surprisingly, this structure only seems hackneyed. Novels like this really do work when the writing style has a particular charm or readers warm to the protagonist. Harold Fry's story doesn't really work.
First-time English author Rachel Joyce's writing style seems to hold the readers back from her title character and his unlikely pilgrimage. How odd that, as a former actress who made her name as a writer of successful BBC radio plays, she wouldn't use sparkling dialogue to help the reader engage with Harold and his struggles.
Instead, there's little actual dialogue, more recaps of Harold's exchanges with his wife back home and strangers along the way.
Harold, a recent retiree after 45 years at an unsatisfying job as a brewery sales rep, receives a letter from Queenie, a former colleague who once did him a mysterious favour. She is dying of cancer in a hospice more than 1,000 kilometres away.
Harold pops down the corner to mail her a letter and just keeps going. With no preparation, no plans, no map, no cellphone and no explanation to his wife, Harold begins the unlikely pilgrimage.
A chance conversation with a young woman at a gas station has Harold believing he can keep Queenie alive by walking to her.
Such a setup could use a little burlesque treatment, a nod to the surrealism of Harold's impossible journey. But alas, it is not there until well into Harold's walk, then disappears quickly.
But that portion of the trek is highly entertaining, reminiscent of movie icon Forest Gump's cross-country run. Joyce cleverly mocks the modern media treatment of a quest and the hangers-on it attracts.
For these too-short chapters, readers will be entertained by the absurdity of the situation and by Joyce's delightful portrayal of the characters who glom onto Harold's unlikely pilgrimage.
When that segment is over, the end of the story can't come soon enough. Instead, Joyce takes readers down several unlikely plot twists to an ending so grotesque, so unsatisfying, it's tempting to spoil it here.
Readers will find themselves flipping back pages to try to find some inkling that this ending was coming. Smart ones will give up quickly and move along.
Chaucer's pilgrims amused and educated readers. Joyce's Harold will leave them uncaring, scratching their heads and wishing they hadn't wasted their time.
Julie Carl is Deputy Editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
By Rachel Joyce
Bond Street, 320 pages, $30
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 J8
(1 of 23 articles for this week)