‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ – Rachel Joyce


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking to save someone else’s life.

A sweet and heart-warming novel, readers follow Harold Fry as he takes it upon himself to walk 800-odd miles in a bid to save a friend from his past from dying from cancer. Exploring his strained marriage to his wife, Maureen, we meet many people Harold comes across along the way, all showing that despite a perfect exterior, everyone can have hidden troubles of their own.

I found this book initially quite difficult to get into as all the story does is describe Harold walking and the people he interacts with. I think I was expecting something a bit more dynamic, but as the story develops and news of Harold’s walk spreads, the narrow-mindedness of some of the people that join Harold made me want to push all the tag-alongs away so the story would be solely focused once more on his musings.

What I found most interesting was the flashbacks about Harold and Maureen, from when they first met, Harold working and the switch to how Maureen was managing with Harold gone. This provided a whole new perspective and I loved watching Maureen change as Harold’s walk progresses. From the start there is always the hanging question of whether Maureen and Harold can overcome this pilgrimage and live a happy life together and this kept me guessing right towards the end. Indeed, the relationship described between Harold and David, his son, is also full of deceptions and it really tugged at the heart-strings! It is clear that Harold has been through a lot in his lifetime and this makes you understand even more why he feels it necessary to walk to see his friend.

The plot twist towards the end of the novel was completely unexpected and I found it made the final chapters even more poignant. I think it was by this point that I truly appreciated the story for what it was: an exploration into people and their different walks of life, rather than a story dominated by revealing flash-backs and action. Desperate for a happy ending after all that Harold has been through, I sought reassurance that his pilgrimage had not been in vain.

This is an interesting story and one that I enjoyed reading. It is not a massively long book but I found it took me a while to get through because it is more of a drama rather than action. The way Harold and Maureen evolve over the story is fascinating to watch and I think Joyce pulled off a convincing tale of a man and woman both seeking answers and change to their lives.



The pursuit of happiness

‘The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia’ – Samuel Johnson

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The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia – Samuel Johnson

‘Rasselas’ compresses into a hundred or so pages everything that puts Dr Johnson among the great lions of English literature and life.

Telling how Rasselas and his companions escape from the bland pleasure of their perfectly happy valley in Abissinia to Egypt, to study how people live, the book is a parable and a pilgrimage in which all manner of subjects are discussed – flying machines, poetry, marriage, madness. ‘Rasselas’ embodies Dr Johnson’s most powerful and heart-warming qualities: his tragic sense of life, his justice, his wisdom which is never boring or solemn, and his miraculous ability to balance humour with sympathy in weighing up some of life’s more mysterious problems – what is happiness, and how can we find it?

I find it ironic that the last book I reviewed was a 20th century take on the pursuit of happiness, and now here I am again, but this time reviewing Samuel Johnson’s interpretation from 1759. It’s not surprising that I have rated this as dreary because it is sometimes a bit of a slog. What I mean by this is not just the language and style of writing, but the social commentary that Johnson includes.

The novel follows the Prince and Princess of Abissinia, as they decide to escape the Happy Valley – a plentiful paradise where every wish is fulfilled. They desire more – they want to feel a need for life and desire. In other words, they are no longer satisfied by the material and wealthy life that the Happy Valley offers.

The procrastinating and deliberating of the Prince and Princess is entertaining because they appear to lament on the negativities of society and procrastinate on its issues, but often are not compelled to widen their observations of society. Instead, they seek other ways of living to make comparisons. I think this is clearly summarised in the concluding chapter, titled ‘The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded’ and, like ‘The Beach’, the reader is left feeling that nothing has been gained, questioning whether the Prince and Princess are now truly happy?

The book has very short chapters and this helps you dip in and out of it. I think this is important to fully appreciate Johnson’s commentary because it does require a lot of thinking at times! If you are up on your classics and 18th century history, then definitely give this a go. It is interesting to consider Johnson’s social commentary at the time and undoubtedly this does enrich one’s reading of this novella. However, don’t feel put off at giving this a go. At the very least, you will read a short story about two members of royalty who go off on an ancient jolly!

Don’t be distracted by Leo in his shorts

‘The Beach’ – Alex Garland

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The Beach – Alex Garland

The classic story of paradise found – and lost.

Richard lands in East Asia in search of an earthly utopia. In Thailand, he is given a map promising an unknown island, a secluded beach – and a new way of life. What Richard finds when he gets there is breathtaking: more extraordinary, more frightening than his wildest dreams.

But how long can paradise survive here on Earth? And what lengths will Richard go to in order to save it?

You can be forgiven for being distracted by images of a young Leonardo diCaprio, fresh faced from ‘Titanic’, wandering around a glorious deserted beach in nothing but his shorts. Or have the AllSaints song (remember them?) playing in a loop in your head. But putting all this aside, ‘The Beach ‘ has more of a darker side than either of the distractions allow.

I, like so many others in this world, watched the film and then decided to read the book. Obviously the film follows the main gist of the story, but there is a lot more depth to this novel than people may originally realise.

The story is told through the eyes of Richard, a traveller who gets a copy of a map to ‘Paradise’ whilst bored and alone in a hotel in main Thailand. Right from the beginning of the book we are exposed to two parts of Richard’s character: the analytical observer and the young man that he is who loves to play video games. Over the course of the novel the two become intertwined and the reader sees Richard escape into an alternate reality: one he feels is more exciting and that is more like the video games that he enjoys playing. With this, I think Garland is trying to emphasise the point of how remote and detached the islanders are from the ‘real world’, yet it is this that ultimately seems to drive them apart as a community; the characters feel like they are in Paradise but at the same time feel a longing for something more.

I wouldn’t normally comment on the structure of the book but on writing this think that the short chapters (sometimes just a couple of pages long) are not only convenient in making this an ideal book to dip in and out of, are also meant to reflect Richard’s immaturity to some of his experiences. This escapism grows throughout the novel as he spends more time on the island, and I was expecting Garland to do something with this. However, the closing of the book does not elaborate on this state further and to some extent I found this disappointing, leaving me wanting more. So I guess this is Garland’s point: leave you wanting more after reading about a paradise, just like the characters on the island.

I would definitely give this book a read. It is interesting to see how the characters change to their new surroundings but I must admit there are points where things get a little bit dull. If you have already seen the film, it will give you a fair idea of what this is about, but definitely expect more to Leo/Richard than you originally perceived.