There are times when doing the right thing comes as a complete surprise especially when doing so is completely out of character. So it is with Harold Fry, a man who has been a bystander of his own life. When we meet him in Rachel Joyce's marvelous debut novel, he is retired from his sales job at a brewery, estranged from his wife, Maureen, absent in the life of his grown son, David, without friends or interests or hobbies. Harold just is. But he isn't really. Even in retirement, Harold is an empty suit.
One morning, as he sits at the breakfast table "freshly shaven, clean shirt and tie", he receives a letter from his old colleague from the brewery, Queenie Hennessy, informing him, quite concisely, that she is dying of cancer and nothing can be done. Despite not being in touch with each other for twenty years, she thought he'd like to know. Harold is shaken and stirred. As he walks to the nearby letter box to post a characteristically unsentimental reply, something changes in Harold. He passes another letter box and then another. Then a chance conversation with a counter girl at a convenience store puts everything into focus for Harold: if he keeps walking, he is certain Queenie will live. If he treks the 600 and some miles from Kingsbridge to Berwick-Upon-Tweed, he can save Queenie. Unprepared, out of shape, wearing boat shoes and a suit, with little money and no cell phone, off he goes. By the journey of Harold Fry, Queenie Hennessy will live.
As he makes his way, Harold opens himself up to the spirit of the journey. He will stick to the main roads despite knowing there are quicker ways to cover more miles. He will befriend strangers and listen to their life stories. He will accept help, grudgingly at first. By accident, Harold's quest even becomes newsworthy and soon others join him on the road, fervent in their belief in Harold's belief, all walking to save Queenie though many with agendas of their own. Harold, never one to rock the boat, suffers but presses on.
As for summarizing, I will leave it at that. I have left you in a good place and there is much more to Harold's story. I do encourage you to read this work for yourself which will hit stores on July 24. That said, I must add that I cried throughout the book for Harold, for Maureen, for David, and for Queenie. Joyce's prose is spare and tight and I admire the economy with which she has told this tale. There is a portion of the book that takes on some Forrest Gumpiness but that is expected and easily forgiven because it is a novel that is generous and deeply satisfying. While a good man is hard to find, look no further than Harold Fry.