Harold Fry is whiling away his retirement – pottering about in south Devon, the spark long having gone out of his marriage to Maureen – when he receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old work colleague. Queenie has written from a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed to tell Harold that she is dying of cancer; moved that she still remembers him after all this time, Harold writes a letter in reply, and goes out to post it – but that feels inadequate to him, and Harold soon finds himself on a mission to walk all the way to Berwick.
Rachel Joyce’s debut is a delight to read: it reminded me of a (less macabre) Dan Rhodes book in its ability to combine whimsy with a genuine emotional punch; Harold’s journey may be eccentric, but his reasons for making it are not – and the colourful characters he meets along the way may have painful stories of their own that they don’t want to share. I particularly like the way that the changing character of Harold’s pilgrimage reflects and reinforces the waxing and waning of his hopes (at his most optimistic, Harold gains a new lease of life, and people want to travel with him; at his most despondent, he is bedraggled and alone). I’ll be interested to see what Joyce writes next.