arold Fry is eating his breakfast when the letter comes. ¶ It’s a hand-scrawled missive from an old friend and work colleague, Queenie. Queenie is writing, the letter states, to say goodbye. She is dying of cancer. ¶ Maureen, Harold’s wife, is momentarily nonplussed. Then she goes back to her toast. ¶ Harold, however, is shaken to his core. ¶ He composes a reply to Queenie, and walks to the letterbox to put it in the mail. ¶ But something happens. ¶ Harold passes the mailbox – and keeps on walking. ¶ His impulsive journey, across all of England to reach his dying friend, forms the substance of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” a novel that is the May selection of The Buffalo News Book Club. It is newly released in paperback. ¶ Rachel Joyce, the novel’s British author, said the book is about journeys of many kinds – in a modern landscape.
“I wanted to look at what a journey might mean,” said Joyce, a former dramatic actress turned playwright and novelist, “that had faith in it, in the sense that it had an element of faith in it, an element of trust. I was interested in where we find faith.”
“A lot of us are faithful, in that we do things that don’t have a guaranteed end.”
The book, she said, is “a journey – it’s about loss, and it’s about love.”
Joyce spoke to The Buffalo News from her home in rural England, where she and her husband, actor Paul Venables, raise four children on a spread in Gloucestershire, near the Cotswolds. (They have livestock including poultry, a goat, and what Joyce refers to as a “horse that isn’t mine but follows me everywhere.”)
“You can hear lambs bleating in the background, probably,” Joyce joked, on the phone. “These lambs are waiting for me to feed them.”
The family used to live in London, but Joyce said they decided they wanted to live in a rural area of open spaces and natural beauty. Her children range in age from 10 to 16.
“I’d just had enough of London,” said Joyce, a classically trained actress who studied English literature as an undergraduate and then attended drama school at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “I’d had enough of it. I just needed to be in the countryside. We just decided to make the jump.”
“It was time for my children to be bored, basically. There’s so much going on in London. Like New York.”
Joyce’s rural surroundings served as part of the inspiration for “Harold Fry” – a novel in which the main character spends much of the narrative traversing the breadth of England, passing through much open countryside along the way.
“The book is set through the whole of England, but as far as the detail of how the land changes, that’s sort of what I see every day,” Joyce said. “It really is what I see. It gives me real pleasure to see those changes every day. That’s like food and drink – it really pleases me.”
Joyce performed for some 20 years on the stage, including with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then she turned to writing. She has written many plays for the BBC; “Harold Fry” is her first novel.
Harold Fry’s spur-of-the-moment journey – made in boating shoes that quickly become ruined, unsuitable clothing, and with no provisions of any kind – results in changes and ripple effects that Fry never could have imagined.
In the novel, Harold Fry becomes something of a cult hero in Britain, as he walks. He attracts attention – even followers. He learns about others, through chance meetings and listening to others’ stories, and he learns about himself as well.
Back home, his wife, Maureen, undergoes a transformation of her own.
Joyce said that she felt sympathetic toward Maureen Fry in writing the novel, because Maureen’s pilgrimage was in many ways as daunting as Harold’s – only it was not as wide-ranging.
“Harold makes the journey, a physical journey,” said Joyce. “But Maureen makes a journey, as well – only she makes it in four walls.”
Writing about these parallel quests by a seemingly normal, placid, long-married couple gave Joyce a chance to reflect on what a “pilgrimage” really means, in our modern world.
“I do feel there are some things you cannot undo,” said Joyce. “But they remain the two of them … All of us have things that almost break us. And we – despite everything, we manage.
“The point of the book is … we’re all ordinary. We’re all the same. But we each have something extraordinary, that maybe a passer-by wouldn’t get at.
“That’s what moves me, about human beings. That we carry things.”
Readers learn, over the course of Joyce’s novel, about several surprises that lurk behind the surface of Harold and Maureen’s apparently cool and quiet life.
Readers also find out the fate of Queenie.
Without giving anything away – the Book Club respects the right of our readers to an unspoiled plot twist – Joyce said that her resolution to the Queenie story was something she experienced herself with her father, Martin, seven years ago.
“It’s so personal. I couldn’t really shortchange that,” said Joyce. “I couldn’t really do it any different.
“It was the truth, so I was not shy about it.”
Despite those deeply personal ties, Joyce’s book has won wide readership, and critical acclaim, in England and beyond.
“Because it’s a very personal book, it’s a very specific book,” Joyce said. “What’s amazing to me is that people from various parts of the world have responded to it.”
Joyce said that she is finished writing a follow-up novel to “Harold Fry,” which will be published this summer in the United Kingdom under the title “Perfect.” The book will be released in the United States at a later date, Joyce said.
Can she give us a hint as to what “Perfect” is all about?
Turns out, she can.
The book is set in 1972. It involves two boys, both 11 years old.
“I got very interested in the idea of time, along with other things,” said Joyce. “When you just begin to question it … a lot can begin to unravel.”
“It’s about the point where things unravel.”
The Buffalo News Book Club loves to hear from readers about our selections – and field suggestions for future reads.
You can contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and by U.S. mail at The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.