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book review

First-time novelist Rachel Joyce does a great job getting the ready to care about the book’s protaganist.

Very rarely, you come upon a novel that feels less like a book than a poignant passage of your own life, and the protagonist like an acquaintance who has gently corrected your path. Never mind that the protagonist possesses all the realism of a painted clown and his tale the moral fibre of a fable.

Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry starts off in just this way. A rumpled retiree determines to walk 500 miles, believing his hope-filled steps will keep his dying friend alive. The premise seems quaint and predictable, but morphs gracefully into a smart, subtle, funny, painful, weirdly personal novel.

Our hero is Harold Fry, who shares a dreary existence with Maureen, his wife of nearly 50 years. For most of that time they have lived in a house in the village of Kingsbridge, where they raised the clever, troubled son who has disappeared from their lives. Harold and Maureen are so entrenched in housebound routine, they are astonished by the arrival of a pink letter addressed to Harold. It is from his old friend Queenie Hennessy, who worked with him at the brewery. Queenie is dying of cancer and has written to say goodbye.

Harold is not big on words. Nevertheless, he writes back immediately. He sets off to post his letter and is overcome by a desire to deliver it in person. Queenie is spending her final days in a hospice in distant Berwick-upon-Tweed. He tosses off a note: In short, "Hold on – I'm comin.'" For once, he believes his actions might make a difference to someone he loves.

Harold's actions have never counted for much. He is the child of a shell-shocked veteran and a woman burdened and bemused by motherhood. Growing up, he keeps a low profile, but his mother leaves anyway. When he's 16, his father buys him a suit and shows him the door.

At a dance he falls in love with Maureen. They are happy newlyweds. But after their son is born, Harold's pathological sense of inadequacy kicks in. He cannot bond with the child; he is even afraid to touch him. From that unprepossessing start, the relationship slides downhill. Maureen is alarmed, then dismayed, then despairs, while at the brewery, Queenie maintains her comforting companionship.

By walking to Queenie's bedside, Harold hopes to right some wrong. This misdeed is one of the many mysteries that keep the reader flipping pages. We also sense something deeper behind his unsatisfactory marriage. As Harold walks, jigsaw pieces of memory fit randomly together. Little by little, we perceive the big picture.

Harold's skin grows red and patchy; his feet blister: These are the proud scars of battle. He blurts out the object of his mission to practically everyone he meets; it beats small talk. People express admiration at his courage and faith. But Harold knows little of religion. While he visits the famous cathedrals along his route, he avoids lingering in sanctuaries, he sticks to souvenirs.

Entertaining characters abound, including an indigent old man who engages Harold in a touching, wordless dance, and an interloper who muscles in on Harold's quest, which has begun to attract attention.

The most memorable characters, though, are the regular folks, like the young mother Harold asks for a glass of water. They sit together on her porch discussing the difficulty of ordinary things like walking and sleeping. Like loving.

Joyce is a first-time novelist, which is obvious only in the slight fastidiousness of her plot, the meticulous dispersal of information measured to maximize suspense. But are these problems? Joyce engrosses us in Harold's meanings and motivations; thanks to her, we care so much.

Harold wanders the crooked paths between hedgerows. Eating outdoors and sleeping under the stars, he feels confident, happy. But the city unsettles him. He is distracted by the preponderance of people and stuff. Harold is romantic, not only in his love for Maureen, but also in the manner of the 19th-century poets: He defies conformity, flees the city, idealizes nature.

Joyce subtly, sometimes comically, refers to Britain's literary heritage. We meet several Jane Austen fans: They love her movies. The book's epigraph is taken from The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's 17th-century allegory of life as a spiritual journey.

Harold is embarrassed when people imbue his trek with spiritual meaning. Yet The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a decidedly spiritual work. It's about a man who struggles to survive the appalling injuries of his youth without the solace of religion; and about how putting one foot in front of the other – believing things will be okay – is by itself an act of faith.

Donna Bailey Nurse is Toronto writer and editor.