368pp, paperback, £7.99
Reviewed by Paul Sidey
There was a long-running wireless quiz programme in the 1950s called ‘Have a Go’, hosted by a bluff, caricature Yorkshireman who went by the name of Wilfred Pickles. Contestants’ general knowledge was not tested severely. This was Light Entertainment of the, grey, repressed post-war years. The lonely hero of Rachel Joyce’s novel would have heard it, before his mother deserted him and her alcoholic husband. A key personal question was, ‘Have you ever had an embarrassing moment?’
Until Harold Fry gets into his stride, on his unlikely pilgrimage, his life has been one, long embarrassing moment.
Retired, aged 65, he seems to be a man who is totally uncomfortable in his own body, in his head, in his marriage, in his job, in society.
Rachel Joyce’s moving, funny, constantly surprising first novel deserves to stay in print for ever. It follows no trends. And it makes the ordinary extra-ordinary. Of the many deft, evocative descriptions, one haunts me: ‘All he could picture was his father in a nursing home, with his slippers on the wrong feet.’
A brief letter from an old associate, Queenie Hennessy, is what prompts Harold Fry to undertake his 627-mile odyssey, from South Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Queenie was a plain, ordinary woman at the brewery where Harold worked as a rep. He was kind to her. And she, in turn, did him a service that we only discover near the revelatory conclusion of the novel. Now, it appears, Queenie is in a hospice, with inoperable cancer. Harold is a man of few words. Emotions have been locked away for years. His wife Maureen sleeps in the spare room.
He writes a brief, unsatisfactory note to Queenie, but fails to post it. Instead, Harold decides, quite madly, to walk all the way north to deliver some kind of message in person, in the hope that this act may save a woman he hardly knows, and maybe save himself...
With the nostalgic and evocative line drawings by Andrew Davidson at the beginning of each chapter, for a while this book seems resolutely set in the past, and possibly destined for a predictable and sentimental conclusion. But as Harold discovers more about himself and the world around him, so Rachel Joyce broadens her descriptions of the lonely, the lost, of the infinite complexities of a modern world. It is a book that grows with each new page. It made me weep.
Rachel Joyce has written a number of radio plays. She takes to fiction as a complete and utter natural, a real original. To repeat Wilfred Pickles’s famous catchphrase on ‘Have a Go’, always delivered to his wife, ‘Give her the money, Mabel.’