Gwen Tuinman




Writerly Observations — on The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I have always been an avid reader.  Books have allowed me to step out of my own life and to gaze into the worlds of others.  Since picking up the pen, or keyboard as it were, I have begun reading with a new purpose.

An editor once told me that the best classroom is a good book.  And so, I seek out, the lessons on craft that can be gleamed from authors whose work has public recognition.  It’s like attending a masterclass from the comfort of my armchair.

What follows is my own writerly observation of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce — a mixture of revelations and reminders of things we forgot we knew.

1.  Chapters

To name or to number, that is the question. Joyce’s chapters are simply titled “Harold and the ___” or “Maureen and the ___”.  (for example, “Harold and the Hotel Guests” or “Maureen and the Telephone Call”).  The reader instantly knows the POV of the chapter and the quaintness adds to the quirky dawdling sense one gets from the characters.  So, do chapters need to be uniform in length and must the chapters alternate predictably — Harold, Maureen, Harold, Maureen? No and no. Each chapter varies in length from three to eleven pages.  As many as two chapters in a row may be about Harold, as the his journey is most central to the story.

2.  Flashbacks

When a character relates a past experience, the flashback doesn’t have become a lengthy expansion standing alone in a separate scene.  Every flashback isn’t a full daydream. A number of Harold’s flashbacks are kernels of memory, captured in a single sentence.  They pop into his mind, then just as quickly, they pop out and he is onto commenting about some new observance of the moment.  This approach to flashback adds to the feeling that you are walking with him.

3.  Tension Between Characters

How does Joyce creates the tension between Harold and Maureen that engages the reader?  She introduces the challenge; the characters grief the loss of their son individually.  This is followed up by the constant confusion created by their lack of communication and inability to discuss their real feelings. “Just talk to each other, for goodness sake!” I want to say.  Tension is furthered when we are allowed a glimpse at one character’s real feelings, a view not afforded to the other character.

4.  The Reveal

A reveal needs to be cleverly paced.  Harold has a secret, something that causes him shame. He’s spent years blocking it from his mind but now, with the revelation of Queenie’s illness, he is forced to remember again. From the beginning of the story, we know there is a secret.  Each time the secret is referenced in the progression of the story, the length of the reveal increases.  The first mention is more of a read-between-the-lines hint at a secret. By the time we reach the end of the story, Harold writes a full letter detailing the event that caused him guilt.

5.  Research

Characters should react to situations and interact with other characters in manners that are plausible.  Joyce writes with a sensibility to the grief experienced by Harold and Maureen, and their coping strategies. Their strengths and weaknesses are relatable and that is what engages us as readers. The minor characters who join in the pilgrimage are a colourful cast of their own with some distinctive psychological angles.  Unless a writer has first hand experience with loss or eccentricity, they should research thoroughly to understand the behaviours and actions of a character thusly afflicted.

This link provides some insight into Rachel Joyce’s inspiration and the source of her characters.

An Interview with Rachel Joyce:

A Little Book With Big Punch — The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Books with heft tend to draw my attention, the weightier the better. I suppose I’ve assumed a correlation between the number of pages and the satisfaction I will derive from reading them. When a friend shared her copy of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I agreed to give it a go.

I observed its small size, lifted its feather weight, and speculated as to its ability to keep me entertained. Well, dear reader, I stand corrected. Big things really do come in small packages.

Poor Old Harold

The journey with Harold is an enjoyable one notwithstanding the sorrows that plague his life. He is a sympathetic character who grew on me mile by mile. At 65 years of age, his career is finished, his wife sleeps in a separate room, and his only child is departed going on twenty years.  When he receives a life changing letter from a dying friend, he determines to walk the length of England to deliver a message to her in person.  Along the way, Harold tries to make sense of his life.

As Harold treks along, the memories visit more frequently and in more vivid detail. Walking becomes a meditative exercise, and long buried thoughts continue to surface. Many of us have unraveled a tangled issue by going for a walk .  Eureka moments of creativity or problem solving can surprise us as we speed along a sidewalk.

Harold’s wife, Maureen, takes a journey that is more cerebral in nature.  His absence allows her time to realize that she does indeed love him.  A satisfying change in attitude from a character who sees the glass half empty.

Just Good Fun

Harold Fry is the British Forrest Gump.  The goodness that he discovers in people delivers levity to the narrative.  He journeys town to town, sharing the purpose of his mission, garnering sympathy and encouragement along the way.  For a period of time, an assortment of quirky tagalongs merge into his pilgrimage, as they too search for meaning.  His story moves people in unexpected ways.  Much like Craigslist Joe, he lives on the kindness of others while he is on the road.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry 4


Reflective Moments

As Harold walks, he experiences the gamut of human emotion; self-doubt, grief, frustration, hope, and trust. Both he and Maureen offer a retrospective on their life together and their journey through grief. Author Rachel Joyce keeps us guessing until the end.  What is Harold’s big secret?

In a few years, I plan to embark on my own pilgrimage through Spain.  Camino de Santiago, here I come!

Deck shoes and duct tape!

How do you shake out the cobwebs?  Do you take a walk?  Visit friends?

I’d love to hear from you.

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