ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: Fingers do the walking through these pages

Penticton book reviewer Heather Allen explores The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

Looking back over the year, there seems to be a common thread among the books I’ve read:  many are tales about walking.

I didn’t set out with a theme, nor did I actually choose most of these books myself. So it seems only fitting that my latest read, recommended by a reader of this column, is about a walking adventure: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by British author Rachel Joyce.

Harold Fry doesn’t plan on a journey. Indeed, his comfortable if stultifying suburban life entails very little in the way of walking at all. Yet one day, Harold receives a hot pink letter from Queenie, a work colleague he hasn’t seen in years.

The shakily scratched note reveals that she has terminal cancer.

The information disquiets Harold to such an extent that he immediately replies, and ignoring his usual routine, goes out to post his letter.

When he arrives at the first post box, he surprises himself again. He doesn’t mail the letter. Instead he keeps walking. As he happens upon each successive box, he keeps making excuses to walk rather than post the letter.

A chance encounter with a mystical young woman during the first hours of his walk cements Harold’s determination. He won’t mail the letter, but will walk all the way to Queenie to deliver his message in person.

Queenie, however, lives more than 500 miles away on England’s opposite coastline. Harold rarely walks further than from his garage to his front door, and at the time of his departure wears only yachting shoes and a light coat. This doesn’t deter him. Not only is he walking to Queenie, he believes that his pilgrimage will save her.

This book, long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, is a fascinating yet gentle read. With great deftness, Joyce reveals how walking is often as much an inward journey as an outward one.

As Harold follows the British motorways, he ponders his seemingly stale marriage, and the disappearance of his son. He recovers new memories about growing up. And bit by bit, he recalls small but mysterious excerpts of his relationship with Queenie.

Although Harold’s walk becomes a pilgrimage – crossing paths with wide assortment of often comical but usually well-meaning people – it isn’t overtly religious.

In fact, the walk is in part an attempt by Harold to restore faith and find meaning in his life in the absence of religion.

Joyce wonderfully conveys the sensation of walking – the euphoria of witnessing a sunrise and the misery of blisters and missing toenails. But she also latches onto the idea that something about the movement of walking is deeply connected to our psyche.

Walking is often the best way to have a good conversation with someone, and in this case, is a great way to unfold a story.

Heather Allen is a writer, reader and book reviewer living in Penticton.