The unlikely but lovable hero of Rachel Joyce's remarkable debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, doesn't call his walk a pilgrimage. He never even calls it a hike, which would suggest planning, a map and hiking boots, all of which Harold lacks.
It takes him 87 days to walk from one end of England to the other, 627 miles, including mistakes and diversions. And all this by a 65-year-old retired sales rep, whose wife reminds him the farthest he had ever walked was to his car.
But when a woman he had once known but not seen in 20 years writes to say she's dying of cancer, Harold takes his inadequate response to the nearest mail box. Rather than mailing it, he keeps walking, dressed in a tie and yacht shoes, although no yachts are involved.
He phones his mystified and furious wife, saying it isn't enough to just post a letter. He will walk to see his old friend, Queenie Hennessy. He phones her hospice to say, "Tell her Harold Fry is on his way…I will keep walking and she must keep living."
Pilgrimage, one of the 12 novels just long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Britain's top literary award, is a gentle adventure with an emotional wallop. It's a smart, feel-good story that doesn't feel forced.
Harold "had always been too English; by which he supposed he meant that he was ordinary. He lacked color. Other people knew interesting stories, or had things to ask. He didn't like to ask, because he didn't like to offend."
He knows he is not good with emotion. He also knows he has made a mess out of being a husband, a father and a friend. (Exactly what happened two decades earlier isn't revealed until nearly the end.)
As Harold walks, he remembers "things I didn't know I'd forgotten." He replays scenes from his life. He stops seeing distance in terms of miles. "He measured it with his remembering." His only map is the one in his head, "made up of all the people and places he had passed."
He elicits confessions and advice. A waitress tells him, "If we don't go mad once in a while, there's no hope."
Harold, who's "afraid religion is not something I ever quite got the hang of," finds believers among the strangers he meets:
"They had looked at him in his yachting shoes, and listened to what he said, and they had made a decision in their hearts and minds to ignore the evidence and to imagine something bigger and something infinitely more beautiful than the obvious."
His walk is not easy, especially after he mails his credit cards back to his wife. Complications ensue after an encounter with a reporter who serves up equal helpings of publicity and misunderstandings.
At home, Harold's wife, Maureen, comes to realize, "It was not a life, if lived without love." On the road, Harold sees, "You could be ordinary and attempt something extraordinary, without being able to explain it in a logical way."
In an author's note to readers, Joyce, a former Shakespearean actress in England, writes that her novel began as a radio play she wrote for her dad as he was dying of cancer, knowing he would never live to hear it. But she wanted to write "something life-affirming at the point when I was losing the person I most wanted to keep."
She's done that and more. I can't think of a better recommendation for summer reading. And take your time, just as Harold does.