I'd seen this on the shelves of Waterstones, and had even bought it for a friend, but it took a while before I picked it up myself. While searching for holiday reads, though, it seemed to be a good candidate.
Harold Fry lives with his wife in Kingsbridge, almost as South as one can get in England. A recent retiree, his days seem to consist of quiet, routine boredom - until, one day, he receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy. The letter tells him that Queenie has cancer, which he has no idea how to bear. He spends a long time trying to write a reply, but in the end words fail him and he writes a rather lame apology for her situation. He takes it to the postbox, but knows that once he posts it through, he has to return home. He walks a bit further to the next postbox, to the post office itself, to the post box beyond. It isn't until he has an unlikely conversation with a girl who works in a garage that his brainwave happens upon him, and it is with some glee that he decides to walk to Berwick-upon-Tweed - approximately five hundred miles from home. By doing this, he believes he can help save Queenie's life.
There are plenty of moments for Harold to doubt himself, particularly in the beginning when he is trying to explain to people what he is trying to do. To his surprise, however, most people are rather taken with the idea and offer encouragement and support. He wishes his wife, Maureen, could do the same. Their marriage has been one of coldness and silence for the past twenty years and he knows what she would say to such a quest like this, but he is desperate for her to understand.
It is very apparent that Harold is not walking to Queenie because he is in love with her. She really is just an old friend, but one whom he feels he has let down and this walk is some kind of atonement. During the walk we meet characters whom act almost as beacons for Harold, from the first woman to offer him water and a sandwich, to a doctor from Eastern Europe whom can only find work as a cleaner in England. The walk also becomes more than trying to save Queenie - Harold is trying to find himself, and figure out who he actually is. Through flashbacks and memories the pieces of Harold's character are filled in, which paint him rather tragically to some degree, but with the effect that you cannot help but cheer him on. Haunted by his mother's abandonment, his father's neglect and his own failings as a father, he is desperate to atone for all his perceived sins and come to some place of peace in one area he believes he can make amends in.
Joyce employs description to great effect in this novel, and the reader feels transported to walking alongside Harold, drinking in the same scenery that he is. She paints the cities through which Harold passes as almost fatal distractions to Harold's walk, scary places that threaten his journey through otherwise simple and peaceful countryside. Each chapter is structured as a new piece in a patchwork quilt, both completing the map of Harold's walk and filling in information about himself. Her characterisation of primary and secondary characters is polished - there is no one in this novel who ought not to be there for the sake of the story.
Not only are we invited into Harold's story, but Maureen's, too, and discover the reasons for the breakdown in their marriage. She wishes she could be there but is held back by fear and the pattern of the past twenty years. She looks at who they once were and wonders whether they can ever be there again. The longer Harold is away, the more she is forced to look inwards, and decide whether to go along on this process that may eventually bring healing, or ignore what is happening and continue on as before.
Beginning at deceptively light and airy, this novel progresses towards the deep, profound, and even points of grieving. It is a gorgeous read that is both moving and entertaining, funny and tragic. Above all, it shows that it is never too late.