There was so much out there, so much life, going about its daily business of getting by, of suffering and fighting, and not knowing he was sitting up there, watching. Again he felt in a profound way that he was both inside and outside what he saw; that he was both connected, and passing through.Harold's life since retirement seems to include the same mundane tasks: eating his toast, mowing the lawn and avoiding his wife, Maureen. When he receives a letter from a coworker he hasn't spoken to in 20 years, informing him she's dying of cancer, Harold clumsily scribbles a short note of condolences and heads out with the intention of dropping it in the closest post box. However, once arriving, Harold decides to walk to the next box, and the next, until he's resolved to walk the length of England to deliver the letter to Queenie personally.
There are times in my life when I take a step back and evaluate my current position. There are times when I take a moment to relive the memories leading up to now. There are regrets, moments of heartache and situations that still make me laugh uncontrollably. I believe it's the nature of living and breathing. The nature of being a human. But Harold's life is filled with so many regrets, it's a wonder he can even breath at all, that he can function bearing all that weight. His esteem, quite lowly. He looks in the mirror only to be disappointed. And so goes most of this book.
Joyce brings Harold alive with a realistic depiction of an individual suffering from a childhood of neglect and disappointment. An adult harboring memories in order get by. A marriage suffering from pain that renders both parties silent. While the introduction of Maureen's character may put readers off, forcing the audience to pity poor Harold, things are never quite what they seem. Once both sides of the relationship unfold, we see two individuals struggling so horribly that we begin to understand the extent of the burden that has threatened to ruin them both. And then there are all those that Harold meets along the way that are also silently suffering in their own ways. You almost can't believe that he's finally embarking on the physical journey that forces him to make the emotional journey he so desperately needs. Memories flood his head as he makes way on the open road, memories that fill him with dread, sadness, self-doubt, in such a fashion that the reader can feel Harold's face wince as the anxiety begins to creep. He's aloof and often so indecisive that you want to shake him. However, Harold's a good man, faced with difficult circumstances, and slowly you began to cheer for his completion and reunion with Queenie. You throw your doubt of the improbable task out the window and believe he can walk those 500 miles despite not having reliable food, shelter or proper footwear. His conviction that his promise to walk, and his subsequent arrival, will provide Queenie with the will to live is touching. It teaches the value of maintaining relationships, of socializing and keeping one's head up. It's about love and loss and all of life in between.
The novel is suspenseful, quirky and moving. I can honestly say that I didn't expect to be as touched by this work. It offered redemption and the motivation to see life from a new lens. While there were many parts that were harder for me to get through with everything that has happened this summer, I felt that it offered a sort of reflection that I don't often find when finishing a work of fiction. Some readers may find the premise hokey and cliche, and maybe it is, but it was just what I needed now. If you're looking for a story that is compelling and beautiful, give Harold and his pilgrimage a go.
I'd compare this to: The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.
*This title was recently added to the Man Booker longlist.