In the first of my reviews of books nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2012, here is:
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a simple story. One morning, Harold Fry receives a letter. It is from a woman he has not seen for twenty years, who is dying of cancer. He writes a response, and walking to the post box to deliver his few lines of sympathy, keeps on walking. He will keep on walking until he has walked the 627 miles to Queenie Hennessy’s bed. The novel is what transpires during those 627 miles – the emotional truths Harold realises about himself, his marriage and the life of his son. But it is also about the lives of those he encounters on his way – an immigrant nurse, a man with a shoe fetish, the hangers-on, the troubled men, and a stray dog. The Unlikely Pilgrimage becomes a travelling show. While, all the way back at his starting point, his wife is realising how much she misses her husband when he is gone.
It is from these simple constructions that Rachel Joyce constructs her truly heart-warming, tender tale. At times funny, sad, bleak, hopeful and full of life, Joyce rarely puts a foot wrong. The supporting cast of characters come alive even through the smallest of details. Harold himself is such a loveable man you want the book to be longer and longer, to not have to leave his side.
It is not without flaws however. But then what is? The hangers-on, for me, somewhat derailed a few chapters in the last third. There were too many of them and they weren’t given enough development; and their unintentional sabotaging of Harold’s pilgrimage seemed more a plot facilitator than something real. Joyce needed them there to provide some peril in the final third. I say this with one caveat, the first of these followers, Wilf, is entirely necessary for he provides the breaking down of Harold’s interior walls and a counter-point to the stability Harold marches on.
The novel proves that Joyce is certainly a name to watch. Already famous in the world of radio writing, Harold Fry will surely see her literary stock rise, and I know many readers are anxiously awaiting her second novel.
Chances of winning the Man Booker Prize 2012?
It stands as good a chance as any of winning. It is certainly deserving of literary and commercial success. Its simple emotional thrust will endear it to the literary judges, but could equally be accused of being emotionally manipulative. Joyce is not afraid to tug at the heart-strings in sequences and language designed to affect the reader. Its good-hearted nature, and the way in which one will see new aspects of it in second readings, give it a good chance of making the short-list. Will it win? It stands a good chance.