Join Rachel Joyce to talk about January's Book of the Month, THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY, on Tuesday 29 Jan, 9-10pm

(222 Posts)

January is all about making fresh starts, new plans and wildly unrealistic promises. Most of us fall by the wayside within days. But not Harold Fry. The hero of our Booker-longlisted, January Book of the Month, THE PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY, is a retired and unhappily married pensioner living in Devon, who receives a letter from an old friend in Berwick Upon Tweed telling him she has cancer. He writes a reply, but on his way to the postbox, he decides that this is not enough. He must walk to Berwick in person, there and then. Only this, he knows, will keep her alive. And so begins a remarkable journey through the roads, cafes, tourist centres, towns and lanes of Britain. Along the way, a cast of diverse characters support, encourage and empathise with him, eventually turning into a cult following. Meanwhile, Harold's own memories begin to bubble up, and resolve the regret and sadness that have blighted his marriage and his relationship with David, the son who dramatically left home.

An exploration of grief and regret, as well as a celebration of love, faith and hope, this is a charming, moving and peculiarly British book.

Our book of the month page has more details about THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY. You can get a paperback or Kindle edition here.

We are thrilled that Rachel will be joining us to discuss the book and answer any questions about THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY, the Booker longlist and her writing career on Tuesday 29 January, 9-10pm.

Hope you can join us...

gazzalw Wed 23-Jan-13 16:40:56

I'm desperately trying to guess what the twist in the tale is - I must be obtuse....hmm

bexyboo19 Wed 23-Jan-13 20:07:13

I really enjoyed this - I don't think I'm going to be able to make the chat which is a shame but I thought that the book was great. I did get a bit annoyed when all the others joined him though, as turning it into a publicity stunt was so not what it was originally about!

I loved the writing style & have turned up about twenty pages with passages I particularly enjoyed. I don't know if I was being dense but I didn't see the twist coming. It wasn't a surprise because the entire book was setting us up for it, I thought, but still it was quite emotional. I also really liked the way that Harold's walk allows him and Maureen both to rediscover themselves :-)

gazzalw Wed 23-Jan-13 21:40:49

I'm getting an idea about the twist now....I'm desperately resisting cheating and googling the ending! grin

gaelicsheep Wed 23-Jan-13 23:16:10

Is there a point at which we can post questions that contain spoilers? The 28th say? I can't make the chat either.

gazzalw Thu 24-Jan-13 06:54:42

I'm not going to be devastated if you post questions with spoilers, gaelicsheep!grin

lilibet Thu 24-Jan-13 12:21:17

I'm 3/4's of the way through my second read, I first read it last May so wanted to refresh my memory of it.

I pictured Harold as Roald Dahl, I think there may be a problem with casting him for a TV series though ...

gazzalw Thu 24-Jan-13 12:32:50

Yes I see that because of the height thing...or maybe Richard E Grant in about 15 years time although not sure that he is right for a keeping his head down type role?

I'm going to make an executive decision and say if you can't make the chat, then you can post spoiler questions from now on - so anyone who doesn't want to know the ending should perhaps LOOK AWAY NOW and then come back on Tuesday night...

Sad for those who can't make it next week, but do post your questions now and Rachel will be sure to answer them when we kick off the chat.

gazzalw Thu 24-Jan-13 16:21:26

Hmmm I'm still being obtuse but guess the twist is either to do with what Harold did which Queenie took the rap for or her true identity...or a combination of the two...Is the fact that she gives him chocolates indicative of a parental relationship???

CuriousMama Thu 24-Jan-13 20:33:58

I got it from the library. It had me gripped all the way through. Won't say too much as it'd spoil it for those yet to read it. It's unique imo.

Laughed and cried in equal amounts. As did Dp.

CuriousMama Thu 24-Jan-13 20:35:12

Well if we can talk about it, their son shock sad I still haven't quite got over that tbh. <lump in throat>

CuriousMama Thu 24-Jan-13 20:35:59

And he goes to my home town grin

gaelicsheep Thu 24-Jan-13 21:51:09

gazzalw - don't get your hopes up, you probably already know without quite registering it.

gaelicsheep Thu 24-Jan-13 21:58:19

OK, if we can post questions, I'd like to ask Rachel Joyce what made her decide to suddenly become so graphic in her detail at the end of the book? For me it underlines the futility of the whole exercise, but also makes it seem that if Harold's walking had any effect all, it in fact rather cruelly prolonged someone's agony. This latter aspect left me rather ambivalent about the whole book - I wonder if that is intentional?
Secondly, if I may but don't mind if it isn't answered, does Rachel feel, in hindsight, that including the groupies in the book was a mistake?

gazzalw Fri 25-Jan-13 08:05:57

I am feeling very obtuse - there's obviously something about David....

southlondonlady Fri 25-Jan-13 09:48:27

Agree this is a slow burn, I did find it very moving but lots is left unexplained. A key factor in the breakdown of their marriage seemed to be their isolation, they didn't have anyone to support them when the worst happened. My question is why had they made themselves so isolated? I didn't think was really explained in the book.

lilibet Fri 25-Jan-13 10:06:59

gaelicsheep I had never thought of that - of him prolonging someone's agony, but you're quite right.

NuffinlikeaPuffin Fri 25-Jan-13 12:37:58

My Sister has recently given me a signed copy of this book after raving about it ever since she read it. I'm loving it so far.

In fact she did more than rave about it - she works for Waterstones and created a huge window display where she'd hand drawn an enormous map and she wrapped some of your books up in little maps so that people could buy them and give them as gifts or just have something a little extra special for themselves. She's really clever and I'm very proud of her. I think you met her when you did a signing in her store smile

My question is - what's the nicest response you've had to this book and which is the most bizarre? Have they all been positive?

currybaby Fri 25-Jan-13 13:33:42

I didn't see it as prolonging her agony. She was obviously very lonely and when she did die she was happy and was aware that someone dear to her been with her. I liked that.

I guessed about David from about a third of the way in. But I think that was supposed to happen? It became so obvious towards the end. He was doing so much out of his comfort zone but he still didn't contact him, and David didn't see him in the news and try and contact him.

The twist for me was Queenie's condition at the end. I wasn't really expecting that.

I loved the book. Someone has already said it but I would have loved to have known what happened to the woman doctor, and whether he helped her move on with her life.

Question for Rachel - did you do any walking as part of your research and if so which bits of the walk did you do?

CuriousMama Sat 26-Jan-13 01:38:42

I agree currybaby, was so lovely when Queenie experienced the recognition, very spiritual.

gazzalw Sat 26-Jan-13 08:31:49

I finished reading it last night. I found that as Harold became disheartened near the end of his pilgrimage I was actually gathering momentum in my interest in the book.

I seem to recall from English O Level that we used to discuss the picaresque novel, a journey and this quietly but beautifully epitimised the emotional and physical. I very much loved the walk. I have holidayed in the Kingsbridge part of Devon and the Northumbrian part of the journey is my home turf so I could picture Harold doing his walk and it made it seem more real. I physically felt as if I was there with him all the way.

I loved the amazing array of characters he met along the way and yes felt that for whatever reason the Slovakian doctor played a beautiful part in helping the story to progress. I am not sure why but I get the feeling that a lot of Mumsnetters, like me, would be rooting for her to have a better life.

In almost seemed to me that Queenie was Harold's guardian angel. She saved him from total melt-down after David's death, but then helped him save his marriage and 'wake up' from his inertia and twenty year depression. In a way she seemed to be like the mother he never had. In fact all the talk of twists in the tale made me suspect (wrongly) that Queenie was his mother who had come back in a totally different guise to look after him. It was all the talk of her providing him with chocolate goodies on their work-related trips that made me think that.

I didn't entirely anticipate that Queenie was going to be at death's door when Harold arrived. One question for Rachel is to ask why Queenie had to have been so ravaged by cancer that she seemed more monster than human? I do appreciate that cancer whittles away at people until they are shadows of their former selves (and perhaps this description related to her memories of her father's death sad) but I am not sure that after all the emotional pain that Harold suffered (in allowing his suppressed feelings to come out in the course of his walk) that he really needed quite such a shocking meeting/resolution with Queenie. Or was it a case of him having to stare at the worst of life and death (in what had happened to Queenie and David) to complete his catharsis and fully enable him to move on with his life and Maureen.

I think it is one of those novels that will stick with one for a long time. I found it quite discomforting and challenging in a way that seemed at odds with the way in which the novel started - it all seemed so suburban and normal. A bit like a David Lynch film with the veneer of everyday life hiding ghosts and ugliness. I think we can all be capable of sinking into inertia in our lives and relationships and it is sad but true that often it takes some type of bereavement/catastrophe to wake us from this state.

I think it would make a fabulous film - have you had any approaches from film companies yet, Rachel?

HellesBelles396 Sat 26-Jan-13 15:59:16

My question is about Queenie and Maureen: they have such contrasting views of Harold at the beginning of the story. Queenie thinks of Harold as a good and kind man while Maureen sees him as distant and cold. Over the course of the story though, she comes to see him more as Queenie had and, of course, so do many others. Yet, he was doing something that could be seen as very selfish as he had abandoned his responsibilities and was walking as much out of his own need for redemption as for Queenie's survival.

What reasoning did you ascribe to Maureen - beyond what is written in the book - as you put together that element of the story?

Thank you for writing this book, btw, it really moved me while being enjoyable.

Clawdy Sun 27-Jan-13 15:13:09

I remember last year reading about the poet Simon Armitage walking the entire Pennine Way,about 250 miles,relying totally on the kindness of strangers to give him a bed for the night, and poetry reading in pubs en route followed by passing a hat round for donations! I was reminded of this while reading about Harold's journey. Have you heard of anyone doing something similar?

SunshinePanda Sun 27-Jan-13 20:28:58

Rachel, I enjoyed getting to know Harold even though his actions infuriated me at times! I was struck by the impact of Harold's physical and emotional journey on his wife, more than on himself, without her being involved in walking on the pilgrimage. How important was Maureen's emotional journey to you when writing?

DestinationCalabria Mon 28-Jan-13 00:34:09

Hello Rachel
I am up now when I should be asleep but can't make the chat on Tuesday as am out and about unusually for me..
I v much enjoyed the book though they were bits like sunshine panda that ANNOYED me about Harold.
And did not guess about David
Anyway, I have always wanted to write for radio (but like those with novels in drawers) never done anything about it -
What was hard about making the transition between the two?

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