The phrase which sprang immediately to mind when thinking of this post was "a charming little book" but while the book in some senses "felt" like that to me, the description is inaccurate. At 330 or so pages it isn't little, and the themes it deals with are profound. But it is engaging and Rachel Joyce's genius lies in her ability to fit those profound ideas into a form which is domestic and accessible.
The novel is about Harold Fry, a man just past retirement, living in suburban blandness with his wife Maureen. One day a letter arrives informing Harold that a former workmate is terminally ill. Harold drafts a properly sympathetic note and pops out to post it. When he reaches the letter box he doesn't post his message, but carries on walking. He is possessed by the idea that walking to deliver the note by hand will somehow keep Queenie, his stricken friend, alive. Thus, dressed in a collar and tie and wearing boat shoes, he begins a walk which takes him from the southwest corner of England to the very Northeast, a walk of around 600 miles.
As he walks he encounters various people and there is a sort of Pilgrims Progressish tinge to it all, but the real journey Harold is making is an inner one. As he walks he is confronted with the incidents that have shaped his and Maureen's lives. It is a book about death, including the death of the self. It is also about love, in its various forms including some distorted ones. Rachel Joyce is grittily realistic and her picture of the Fry family's entrapment is exquisitely drawn. The main characters in the book - Harold, Maureen and their son David - are endearingly, heartbreakingly presented as are the stream of minor characters who appear and have their lives influenced by the Fry family. Her conclusion is satisfying for its realism and compassion, so that in the end this becomes a book about the transformation which comes from embracing death (resurrection if you like). It is also, ultimately, a book about the transforming power of love.
You might well be wondering why on earth I would be drawn to a book about a bloke in his 60s going for a very long walk, but it is also, of all that I have read on the subject and all I have thought, one of the best explorations of the nature of pilgrimage that I have come across. Rachel Joyce gets it exactly: the surrender to the path; the stripping away of material possessions and the inner baring which that symbolises; the inner work prompted by engagement with landscape and the relentless rhythms of the body; the deep healing which the simultaneous inner and outer journeys accomplish. I'm glad I read it and I'm glad I read it this week.