The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel by Rachel Joyce. Random House. July 2012.
Honestly, I meant it - at the time - when I said I didn't intend to follow the Bookers this year, at least not so far as predicting the winner - at which I've been quite accurate, I don't mind bragging. I've signed on to judge the Chicago Writers' Association Awards and expect a big box of books to plop on my porch any day now. I'm also on the cusp of jumping on the panel for the Carnegie Medal for Writing, though that won't become a difficulty for several months. Add one thing and another, a daughter heading off to college, two big writing projects, a freelance writing gig preparing to go live soon and no rational person would consider taking a stab at the Man Booker Guessing Game, too.
I repeat: no RATIONAL person.
But I was already reading Harold Fry when the Longlist came out, so it's not completely out of the realm of possibility I'd consider where such a book would fit into the Booker Game. Of course I did, having earned the reputation for being such a whore slave to award excitement. Especially last year, when it came down to having to choose between Sebastian Barry (!) and Julian Barnes. Beloved readers, that nearly killed me. (But I said it would be one of them, now, didn't I. And it was.)
Shortly after Mr. Barry's On Canaan's Side dropped out of Shortlist contention I was chatting with him about it, bleating on about my sadness his book wouldn't win the Booker that year. He looked me deeply in the eyes and said, "I hope Julian Barnes wins, don't you?" My heart flipped over and I replied, "I do," which, if you think about it, is quite ironic. I said "I do" to Sebastian Barry.
Wait. What was the topic?
Oh, the Booker. And Harold Fry.
"... [Harold] dared to lift his eyes to meet those of the silver-haired gentleman. The irises were a watery blue; the whites so pink they appeared sore. It tore at Harold's heart, but he didn't look away. Briefly the two men sat, not speaking, until a lightness filled Harold and caused him to offer a smile. He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past."
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is this year's There But For The. It made the list because it's a multifaceted slice of humanity, a look inside the soul of one man who's essentially Everyman: imperfect, regretful in many ways, heartbroken but stoic and more cut off from the world than he'd realized. It's a tear jerker, the sort of book that makes you understand life - and all relationships - is so much bigger than you allow yourself to see. Or, rather, you're just too damn thick to realize it. The things you let slip away - large and small - the people you lose or lose track of, leave a gaping hole in your life, regret the only souvenir that abides, loneliness the cold comfort.
The plot in short: Harold Fry is a recently retired salesman, living with a wife long ago turned bitter, sleeping in separate bedrooms in their immaculate little house with their uninterrupted routines. Together they have a son, with whom they haven't spoken in many long years, the blame for the estrangement put squarely on Harold's shoulders by his grief-stricken wife. One day, out of the blue, a letter arrives for Harold: a huge event for a man of routine, to whom nothing ever happens. It's from Queenie Massey, a former co-worker who accompanied Harold on his sales calls once upon a time, a co-worker who became a trusted friend. She has cancer, she tells him, and is dying - her short note her goodbye.
Harold feels tears pricking the backs of his eyes as he realizes he's hardly thought of Queenie in ages, that a friend who once did him a great service had been relegated to the past, forgotten. And now she is dying, essentially alone, in faraway Berwick-upon-Tweed. He writes a short note, a cursory expression of sympathy, before heading to drop it in the postbox at the end of his block. But once he reaches the postbox he decides he may as well go to the next one, which has an earlier pickup. Before he knows why, he opens the note, writing he's coming to her, walking to Berwick from far away Devon, and she must hold on until he gets there. With no more preparation than that, he's off on his adventure, not dressed for walking, without so much as a cell phone.
His journey is Quixotic: by turns exciting and mind-expanding, exhausting and frightening. But he soon finds his pace, meeting strangers whose stories help put his life in perspective. Meanwhile, back home, his wife Maureen waits, getting the occasional phone call to let her know he's alright. While he's away she has the chance to mull their life together, the relationship that started out so promising and turned out so very horrible. Does she love him? Does he love her? Or is it Queenie who's the love of his life?
You will love Harold and - unless your nature is completely unforgiving - grow to at least understand Maureen. The book - the writing, the characterization, the plot - is breathtaking. Gorgeous.
"... He went under the stars, and the tender light of the moon, when it hung like an eyelash and the tree trunks shone like bones. He walked through wind and weather, and beneath sun-bleached skies. It seemed to Harold that he had been waiting all his life to walk. He no longer knew how far he had come, but only that he was going forward. The pale Cotswold stone became the red brick of Warwickshire, and the land flattened into middle England. Harold reached his hand to his mouth to brush away a fly, and felt a beard growing in thick tufts. Queenie would live. He knew it."
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry won't win the Booker Prize. It was nominated because the judges thought it deserved a wider readership and what better way to spotlight it. Just like There But For The. It is literary, it is laudable, it is a book I wish I'd written and I so want you all to read. But it's no Sense of An Ending or On Canaan's Side. And, for for goodness sake, how can you not want to know what happens?
The Booker has been the butt of complaints it's become too traditional, too predictable (really?), that the short and longlists are too safe. Experimental, unconventional fiction keeps missing the boat. So this year's list is far different, bowing to peer pressure in another way. It contains a lot of predictables, like Hilary Mantel - who won't win because Wolf Hall already did, and you can mark my words on that - but there are many unknowns, too. A few are foreign, not of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic origin. And yes, yes Salman Rushdie sort of fit that bill, too, when he was nominated but this year is different. It's varied and, as such, a little baffling to me - to a lot of readers, I'd venture to guess. Some of what's on the list isn't what I'd ever choose to read. I don't care for post-modern writing, urban fiction as it were, and a lot that's experimental. Some of it, sure, but many on the list sound unappealing. Used to be that wasn't the case.
So, I am reading a few of the Longlist candidates. Okay, I admit it. But I'm not aiming to be a completest, partly because the books aren't to be had here and many won't even be published in the UK until too close to the deadline to give me a chance. I find that annoying. The people who read these books would like to have a chance to do that, if you don't mind, before the big Prize is announced. Remember us? The consumers? I get advance copies, too, and I'm sure that's annoying to other readers, but this is a major prize! Quit it!
These are the two I ordered from the UK, the two that that sounded like potential winners, those I thought I could take a stab at, anyway:
The Gardens of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Communion by Sam Thompson
Look out for my next Longlist report. I promise it will get here when it gets here - no sooner or later. The books I ordered should arrive soon and I'll do my best to fit them in. Because it's just my nature, crazy busy or no crazy busy. And I'll make my best guess re: the winner, whether I read the books or not. Again, like usual. Maybe I'll break my perfect record this year, who knows? The committee will go the way the committee goes. But I'll feel no shame. At least I'll have given it a shot. Life's a lot more interesting when you stray off the same old route. Don't you think?
Wish me luck... Or not. GO CRAZY WITH IT!