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How Rachel Joyce’s pilgrimage novel attracts post-religion truth seekers

Rachel Joyce: ‘It’s got a lot of what I feel in it. And maybe that’s what people are responding to. Maybe without knowing it I tapped into something that was in the air.’

When Westerners lose their ancestors' religious faith and abandon the churches those worthies built, they don't just disappear. Increasingly they go on pilgrimages, instead.

Today, hundreds of thousands of spiritually inclined agnostics throng the rugged Camino de Santiago in Spain, a traditional pilgrimage recently dramatized in The Way, starring Martin Sheen, while others beat paths to such unlikely holy sites as the Mississippi crossroads where Robert Johnson learned to play the blues. Pilgrimages flourish even as the religions that once inspired them dry up and fade away.

That rich paradox lies at the heart of Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, one of the most successful debut novels of 2012. It was included on the long list of finalists for the Man Booker Prize and remains a bestseller and book-club favourite almost a year after its publication.

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Joyce's hero is a quintessentially modern Everyman who professes no religion and has never browsed travel sites specializing in spiritual quests. He rejects the "pilgrim" label that others pin on him during his impromptu hike the length of Britain. He doesn't look for God and never finds Him. His burden is not the traditional cargo of Protestant sins, but his emotional failure to connect with his loved ones. And he arrives not at some agnostic suburb of the Celestial City but a deathbed.

Nevertheless, both Harold and his once-estranged wife discover tremendous solace in the chance encounters of his inexplicable quest, and hundreds of thousands of readers in more than 30 languages have come to share it. His is a delicate redemption, with no big promises, but undeniably appealing to post-faith truth seekers.

Joyce, a mother of four who lives in Gloucestershire, England, worked as a radio dramatist and actress before publishing her first novel. She speculates that it has succeeded because of its simplicity. Some stories are universal, as the author acknowledges with an epigraph taken from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. But her Unlikely Pilgrimage is more human than allegorical, she insists.

"I very much want the book to be a story in itself, so you don't need any other reference points to get it," Joyce said in an interview. "I didn't want to be clever with it. I wanted to tell the story in as simple and true a way as I could."

She was guided by emotion, not doctrine. "I think it has very much got what I know, or what I love, or what I feel," she said. "It's got a lot of what I feel in it. And maybe that's what people are responding to. Maybe without knowing it I tapped into something that was in the air."

Harold's trek begins accidentally when he walks to the post office to mail a tepid "get well" note to an old friend who is dying of cancer. But for some mysterious reason he doesn't stop. Instead he walks on with growing determination to deliver the note by hand, fooling himself into believing that his prolonged delivery will keep his friend alive.

He takes up the path without any money, proper clothing or shoes for his soon-blistered feet, blissfully free of "all the stuff," according to Joyce.

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Unarmored by material goods and routines, Harold becomes susceptible to long-suppressed feelings. "For me, the significance of Harold's journey is that he connects where he doesn't think he's going to connect," Joyce said. "And he is a passerby, so he can both realize big things about people's lives and then move away from them. That's an idea I'm very drawn to."

Not coincidentally, the hideous facial cancer that his friend has is the same as that which brought down Joyce's own father. She began writing the book as he was dying – somehow hoping to keep him alive while she did so, just as Harold strives to keep his friend alive by walking. "But also" – again like like Harold – "knowing that wasn't going to work."

But the novel certainly does. Begun as "a present, or a secret, or a something" for her father, it has warmed hearts and inspired pilgrims worldwide.

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