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16 Remote Warehouse Literature- Contemporary Women

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry Cover



Reading Group Guide


1. Harold’s journey is both physical and metaphorical. He is not the only character in the novel to go on a journey and Rachel Joyce has said that writing the book was in itself a journey. What other literary journeys does this novel call to mind?

2. Harold says he is not a religious man but his journey is called a pilgrimage and it is undoubtedly a leap of faith. How much and how consciously do you feel RJ draws on Christian tenets and/ or other belief systems in the novel.

3. Harold is a man with many flaws. Despite, or perhaps because of this, do you see him as an archetypal Englishman? Or is he an Everyman?

4. When we first meet Harold and Maureen, while they share breakfast they seem in different worlds. To what extent did you see Maureen as the cause of Harold’s departure?

5. The mental health of several characters is called into question in the novel. Depression, Alzheimers, addiction are all diseases that touch many of us and yet mental illness remains to a great extent taboo in our society. How is RJ using this? Do you find it effective?

Harold and Maureen are married but both are lonely. The couple Harold meets at Buckfast Abbey travel together but have also lost sight of what holds them together. What makes a marriage happy? How much is romantic happiness about being a pair and how much about other people and interests?

6. At the start of the book both Harold and Maureen have allowed friends to fall by the wayside. This story is all about how we all connect with one another. What makes someone a true friend and how does RJ represent friendship?

7. Regret is an emotion that plays a key part in the novel. Do you think RJ sees it as a positive or negative force?

8. Is Harold’s relationship with David the inevitable result of Harold’s own upbringing?

9. Rachel Joyce writes beautifully about the English countryside – but how crucial to the telling of her story is the actual landscape she describes? How would it change the novel if it was set in Scotland, perhaps, or France, or..?

10. The sea provides bookends for the novel and plays a vivid part in Harold’s memories. Is this significant?

11. How does RJ use food, and the sharing of food in the novel?

12. How much are Harold’s responses to his fellow pilgrims dic- tated by his past?

13. Was the ending of the novel a shock or the inevitable conclusion?

14. Who saves who in this novel?

15. Has The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry inspired you to do something out of the ordinary – take a journey? Renew contact with someone? Look at strangers with a new perspective? Do share your response with us at


“Six years ago ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ began as a play for BBC Radio 4 that I wrote for my dad as he died of adenoid cystic cancer of the head and neck. I knew he would never hear it – and he didn’t. The last play of mine that he heard, he came to me afterwards and said, “You’ve done it again. You’ve made me cry.”

I was never sure if he was happy or sad about that.

The play won an award for best radio play. He didn’t know that either.

I had wanted for many years to write a book, but never had the courage it would work. I tried several times, and they came to nothing. (For a start, I didn’t show them to anyone.) So I enrolled on a novel writing course as a way of gaining confidence and also making a commitment.

I started writing through the night when my family were asleep. Or I’d have to stop the car on the way to school and jot something down on a bit of paper or the back of a receipt. My children got very good at taking notes as I dictated them. The other day I found one in my bag jotted down by my youngest daughter. It says: ‘what is Harold’s atitud to alcool?’

In writing the book, I listened a lot to other people. I wove a lot in of what I saw as I passed. People move me very much. Sometimes I think I feel more for them than I can say; it goes into what I write. It was the same when I used to work as an actress. I felt able to express the things inside me that didn’t have a place anywhere else.

The book isn’t about my dad. But it maybe (somehow) is about me wanting him not to die. He was a very fit and sharp man. His battle against cancer took four years and was very distressing to witness. He was reduced and reduced and reduced. We didn’t talk about it because he didn’t want us to. He insisted on doing the London – Brighton cycle race shortly after one operation. After another, I’d go to visit him in hospital and he was in an awful way, but still wearing a shirt and tie. Just like Harold.

This book has my heart in it. I tried to write a story that wouldn’t quite fit the rules. So that the reader might think they knew where they were, and then discover they weren’t there after all. I wanted to make the implausible, plausible after all.”


The author, Rachel Joyce, has written    over    twenty    original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4, and has created major adaptations for the Classic series and Woman’s Hour, as well as a TV drama adaptation for BBC2. In 2007 she won the Tinniswood Award for Best Radio Play. Joyce moved to writing after a twenty-year career in theatre and television, performing leading roles for the RSC, the Royal National Theatre, The Royal Court and Cheek by Jowl; and winning a Time Out Best Actress Award and the Sony Silver. She currently lives in Gloucestershire with her family and is at work on her second



What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 21 comments:

Pia Welch, January 23, 2013 (view all comments by Pia Welch)
Delightful story.
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Shonna, January 15, 2013 (view all comments by Shonna)
I've been reading this novel slowly, trying to prolong it as I was enjoying it so much. Harold Fry is a retired salesman for a brewery. He lives a quiet life with his wife Maureen, until one day he receives a letter from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy. The letter indicates that Queenie is dying of cancer, and Harold isn't sure how to respond. He finally writes a quick note, shoves it in an envelope, and walks out to the postbox. But inexplicably, he doesn't stop there, deciding to go to the next one, and then the next one, and he just keeps walking. He finally realizes that he is walking to Queenie, across most of Britain, a task he is woefully unprepared for. He keeps calling and sending postcards to Maureen, telling her of his progress, and meets a variety of characters, most of whom assist him in his journey. Maureen, at home, also goes through a change as she deals with her husband's unexpected pilgrimage, looking at her own life and the things she has done and said.
Ultimately, it is a story of their marriage, their struggles and the gulf that has grown between them and the events that are now an opportunity for them to bridge that gulf.
The writing is wonderful. We get a sense of Harold's past as we see his mother "She was young, with a peony-bud mouth and a husband who had seemed a good idea before the war and a bad one after it." We see how he learned at a young age "to appear absent even when present".
As he finds himself walking, he finds he is both revisiting his past and really noticing the world around him. He muses "maybe you saw even more that the land when you got out of the car and used your feet." Harold has more revelations as his journey continues. "He saw that when a person becomes estranged from the things they know, and is a passerby, strange things take on a new significance."
A story of a man's life, his struggle to do the right things, to say the right things, coming from a past where he wasn't taught how to do any of it. This is an amazing book, well worth the read.
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(3 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)
krickcrak, January 6, 2013 (view all comments by krickcrak)
I thought I knew what would happen, but this book surprised me. It had an unexpected and powerful emotional impact on me, and because of this, I believe it is the best. book I read this year. Check it out
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(0 of 1 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

Joyce, Rachel
Random House
Literature-A to Z
Publication Date:
8.54 x 5.83 x 1 in 1.0625 lb

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Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Humor » General
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Contemporary Women
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Debut Fiction
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Family Life

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$25.00 In Stock
Product details 336 pages Random House - English 9780812993295 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "When Harold Fry, a morbidly shy, retired British brewery salesman, decides on a whim to walk the distance between his home in southern England and the hospice where his long-lost friend, Queenie Hennessey, is dying of cancer, he has no idea that his act will change his life and inspire hundreds of people. The motivation behind the trek and why he is burdened by guilt and the need to atone, are gradually revealed in this initially captivating but finally pedestrian first novel by English writer Joyce. During Harold's arduous trek, which covers 627 miles and 87 days, he uncoils the memory of his destructive rampage for which Queenie took the blame. He also acknowledges the unraveling of his marriage and his anguish about the lack of intimacy with his son. Plagued by doubt and exhaustion, he undergoes a dark night of the soul, but in the tradition of classical pilgrimages, he ultimately achieves spiritual affirmation. Joyce writes with precision about the changing landscape as Harold trudges his way across England. Early chapters of the book are beguiling, but a final revelation tests credulity, and the sentimental ending may be an overdose of what the Brits call 'pudding.' Agent: Conville & Walsh Literary Agency. (July)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Review" by , "[A] gorgeously poignant novel of hope and transformation."
"Review" by , "You have to love Harold Fry, a man who set out one morning to mail a letter and then just kept going....Like Christian in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Harold becomes Everyman in the eyes of those who encounter him....Harold's journey, which parallels Christian's nicely but not overly neatly, takes him to the edge of death and back again. It will stick with you, this story of faith, fidelity and redemption."
"Review" by , "For all of us perfectly responsible, stoop-shouldered suburbanites wearing a path in the living-room carpet, Harold's ridiculous journey is a cause for celebration. This is Walter Mitty skydiving. This is J. Alfred Prufrock not just eating that peach, but throwing the pit out the window, rolling up his trousers and whistling to those hot mermaids. Released from the cage of his own passivity, Harold feels transformed, though he keeps his tie on....In this bravely unpretentious and unsentimental tale, she's cleared space where miracles are still possible."
"Review" by , "[R]emarkable....I can't think of a better recommendation for summer reading. And take your time, just as Harold does."
"Review" by , "[A] story of present-day courage...about how easily a mousy, domesticated man can get lost and how joyously he can be refound."
"Review" by , "From its charming beginning to its startling and cathartic denouement, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a comic and tragic joy."
"Review" by , "When it seems almost too late, Harold Fry opens his battered heart and lets the world rush in. This funny, poignant story about an ordinary man on an extraordinary journey moved and inspired me."
"Review" by , "There's tremendous heart in this debut novel by Rachel Joyce, as she probes questions that are as simple as they are profound: Can we begin to live again, and live truly, as ourselves, even in middle age, when all seems ruined? Can we believe in hope when hope seems to have abandoned us? I found myself laughing through tears, rooting for Harold at every step of his journey. I'm still rooting for him."
"Review" by , "Marvelous! I held my breath at his every blister and cramp, and felt as if by turning the pages, I might help his impossible quest succeed."
"Review" by , "Harold's journey is ordinary and extraordinary; it is a journey through the self, through modern society, through time and landscape. It is a funny book, a wise book, a charming book — but never cloying. It's a book with a savage twist — and yet never seems manipulative. Perhaps because Harold himself is just wonderful....I'm telling you now: I love this book."
"Review" by , "The odyssey of a simple man...original, subtle and touching."
"Review" by , "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry takes the most ordinary and unassuming of men and turns him into a hero for us all. To go on this journey with Harold will not only break your heart, it might just also heal it."
"Review" by , "A gentle and genteel charmer, brimming with British quirkiness yet quietly haunting in its poignant and wise examination of love and devotion. Sure to become a book-club favorite."
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