I have been looking forward to Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry ever since the Random House Canada Blogger event, where the book was compared to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. So when I received the following invitation from Chatelaine Books, I was so excited I sent in my RSVP right away.
The story of Harold Fry begins when he receives a letter from an old friend who has fallen ill. On his way to post a response, Harold instead makes the decision to walk across England to see his friend in person. I’m not much of a romantic, but the image of an elderly man painstakingly making his way across a nation just to see an old friend struck me as lovely. For some reason, Harold reminded me of Stevens, the butler from The Remains of the Day, and a character I imagined as dignified and honourable caught my interest. I still haven’t read the book, so I have no idea how accurate my impression of Harold’s character is. However accurate I turn out to be, however, this is still a testament to the power of Joyce’s concept that her story has captured my imagination so strongly even before I’ve opened the book.
Then, as if I needed even more reason to be excited, the week before the event, I learned that Harold Fry was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. So, even before I read Harold Fry and post a review, if you’re thinking about checking this book out, know that the Man Booker jury has given it a thumbs up. And yes, I have to admit, the idea of meeting a Man Booker long-listed author in person did have a thrill.
Thank you to Chatelaine Book Club for an awesome event. The Oxley Public House is gorgeous! When I heard the event was going to be at a pub, I was expecting a long table by the bar, or perhaps mingling around a few tables. Instead, it turns out Chatelaine booked the second floor bar, which looks like an old English drawing room.
The bartenders were really friendly. I saw one of them flipping through a copy of Harold Fry in the latter part of the event, and talking to his colleague about it. I love that they seem to be excited about the book as well, and I think I saw Chatelaine give them copies as well, which I thought was really sweet.
The food was also delicious — we had lovely fancy hors d’ouevres, but what I really remember is greasy fish and chips in paper cones. It fit in well with the British ambiance, and I at least mastered the art of eating fish and chips from one hand while still holding my martini in the other.
Rachel Joyce is just lovely in person. Laurie, the Books Editor at Chatelaine, said Harold Fry made her and her colleagues sob, literally. When Rachel read an excerpt, I had an uncomfortable feeling I’ll have a similar reaction. In the excerpt Rachel read, Harold calls the hospice where his friend Queenie is:
“Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living. Will you say that?”
[...] ”I see,” said the voice slowly, as if she had picked up a pen and was jotting this down. “Walking. I’ll tell her. Should I say anything else?”
“I’m setting off right now. As long as I walk, she must live. Please tell her this time I won’t let her down.” [p. 19]
After her reading, Rachel explained how Harold’s story, originally written for radio, was inspired by her father being diagnosed with cancer. He was told it would be terminal, yet even after his operation, while lying in his hospital bed, her father would be dressed in a suit and tie, as if on his way to work. Harold Fry is Rachel’s way to honour her father’s legacy.
The book, Rachel says, has gone on a pilgrimage of its own. With each new reader, and in so many countries, Harold Fry has travelled far beyond her and her tribute to her father. I love how genuinely overwhelmed she seems at how much her book has touched so many people’s lives.
Rachel’s story about her father, along with the excerpt she read, touched me deeply. I wasn’t with my mother when she passed away, and I remember vividly the desperate plea — to god, to the universe, to whoever, really — to have her hold on at least until I arrived. I knew it was futile, even selfish, yet part of me wished I lived in a book or movie, where the big dramatic build up just makes the happy ending so much sweeter. So from Rachel’s excerpt alone, I’m rooting for Harold all the way. I don’t know if he’ll make it to Queenie in time; I don’t even know how much the race against time will play into the story. But I am rooting for him. This book has just become personal.
Thank you to Chatelaine Books and Random House Canada for the opportunity to meet Rachel, and to get together with fellow bloggers. It was a wonderful experience, and I look forward to reading the book.
Rachel Joyce will be reading at the International Festival of Authors in October. Stay tuned to the IFOA website for updates on her schedule. Trust me: you’ll want to hear her read.