For a thoughtful introspective journey of self-discovery, for flawed characters who are painfully human, for an expansive intake on what it means to be human
Harold Fry is recently retired and hasn’t much moved since. When he gets a letter from an old colleague, Queenie, who is in hospice with cancer, he decides to send her a polite letter back. And then on the way to the postbox, he decides to keep going. And going. Until eventually, he’s just going to walk all the way across the country to see Queenie. Harold knows that as long as he walks, Queenie will stay alive; and so he sets off in his boat shoes and tie to walk 600 miles. Harold and his wife Maureen don’t have the best relationship, but when she’s left behind at home, she struggles to find some sort of peace of her own with their past and if they have a future together.
I suppose that, yet again, my expectations were not quite right for a book going into it. I heard “walking across England” but forgot the “by a sedentary retiree.” The pace of the book is as slow as Harold was, walking five miles a day on a ~600 mile journey. By halfway through the book, Harold had been walking for what felt like an eternity, and yet he was about a fifth of the way done with his journey. I admit, it did start to drag a little bit at times for me.
Harold’s walk becomes a play in introspection. He walks, and he remembers. All the things he’s forced from his mind, or pushed away because they’re too painful to confront honestly, start to surface again. And throughout his mental turmoil, he faces the physical pains of walking miles and miles every day (in woefully inadequate footwear).
Thankfully, his wife Maureen is not left behind even as she is left at home. In the early pages of the book, I was so worried she would be left in the background as the shrewish, cold wife who no longer shares a bed. Her memories become as central as Harold’s, and in a strange way despite their growing physical distance, they seem to become closer. Absence truly makes the heart grow fonder, to an extent at least.
As much as this is a story about Harold, Maureen, David, and Queenie, it’s also a story about every person Harold comes by, however briefly. It’s about humanity as an idea, and boy does Harold get some lofty ideas about humanity. His wild fluctuations between the purest love for all people and the heaviest despair for himself casts his days of walking in alternating lights. And at the end of the book, wherever Harold ends up, I can honestly say I was surprised by the conclusion and the tenderness and reality and pain and hazy possibility of the future that came with it.