Rachel Joyce: The Testament of Harold Fry

This novel starts with a letter from Queenie, a woman who worked with Harold Fry many years before. The letter tells him that she is dying. And Harold sets out to… To what? There is unfinished business. He sets out on foot, unprepared, just as he is dressed, leaving his wife, Maureen without telling her where he is going.

I was unsure about this novel at first.  I wondered what it was really going to be about. The first few pages are simply story: Harold setting out, written in a very simplistic style, simply the account of his journey. But then it picks up with the girl at the garage, becomes more interesting, you learn more about Harold, because he’s learning more about himself, or so you think. And you learn more about Maureen, because, like Harold, she’s learning about herself. Harold is on a journey, and Maureen is as well, although she stays at home.

Journey novels, or what are often called Quest novels, have a long history starting with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some quest stories are great literature, some are simple stories. Mythology is full of quest stories. Men, and less often women, set out on a journey and in the process find themselves. It’s a painful process, and the traveller often finds something he didn’t expect, or doesn’t find what he was looking for, or doesn’t like what he finds about himself. On the way, the protagonist may be subjected to tests which reveal his character, or make him face up to his faults. Harold was: learning to keep going, to see the countryside for what it is, he learns to overcome his distrust of strangers. Helen of Troy confronts her despair when she realises what she has brought about.

The protagonist often, or indeed, usually does not realise that what he is seeking is self-understanding. Harold doesn’t. He thinks he is going to save Queenie from death. King Arthur’s knights seek the Holy Grail, but our interest is in how the search enlightens them about themselves. We see King Arthur beginning to understand his wickedness in his behaviour towards Guinevere.

It’s a common feature of quest stories that the protagonist has companions, and companions gather about Harold.  I thought this was one of the best parts of the book, completely believable, telling us about the companions in all their complexity and awfulness.

Some reviewers though the ending was an anticlimax. I didn’t. It taught Harold his final piece of understanding. You die of cancer, and Queenie dies. (Actually, often in real life people with advanced cancer die of something else, not the cancer, and Queenie dies because there’s not enough left of her to keep going). One reviewer thought that the rapprochement between Harold and Maureen was false. Too much of a happy ending. They couldn’t have overcome all those years of estrangement.  I don’t agree. I’ve seen a couple remarry after years of separation, battling over their children, a continuation of matrimonial warfare by other means.  It is rare, though.

Anything unsatisfactory? I thought the epigraph, Who would True Valour see, was strange, and misleading. A Pilgrim’s Progress is often quoted as a quest story, but, in my view, it isn’t. It’s a polemic for Christianity. We know the story; it’s not a quest for something to be discovered, and finding other enlightenment along the way.  Pilgrim knows what he will find. It’s an exposition of a belief system.

I’m glad I read Harold Fry.