unlikely

Those shoes weren’t made for walking.

“The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday.”

It felt like it was a competition, as two days ago I got a text from a friend of mine informing me that she’d just finished reading her first book of the year. She was chuffed that she was ahead of me, ignoring the fact that she’s not started back at work since Christmas yet, and I’ve been spending most of my time either at work or with familial commitments.

I told her to enjoy it while she could.

So she’ll return to her school to teach again tomorrow, and I’m free to leap ahead of her once more and begin to devour the pile of books I got for Christmas. First up was this rather splendid book which has started the year off on an excellent footing.

Harold Fry is sixty-five, has been retired for six months, and is pretty much bored with his wife Maureen in their south Devon home. Their marriage has become perhaps stagnant and a little difficult. They sleep in separate rooms and rarely talk about anything important. And then, a letter arrives from Queenie Hennessy saying that she is dying of cancer. She wants to thank Harold for the friendship she showed when they worked together briefly some twenty years ago. Harold is stunned and pens a reply, heading out the door to post it while Maureen is hoovering. However, when he gets to the post box, he decides he’ll walk to the next one. Then the next one. Then the post office. And then he’s in the next town over. After a short lesson in faith and the power of belief from a young girl working in a petrol station, Harold makes a spur of the moment decision – he will walk to Queenie and see her in person. There’s just one problem … she’s over six hundred miles away in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and Harold has no phone, no map, no compass and only a pair of yachting shoes to get him there. So begins the journey of a lifetime.

This book will move you, from start to finish. Harold is a marvellous creation, a kindly older gentleman (fitting the true definition of the word, in that he is a gentle man) who has had enough of doing nothing and now wants to do something. His letters to Queenie telling her that she must fight to stay alive until he gets there are marvellous, and he resolves that if he can reach her, she will be OK. It might be fanciful, but belief is a powerful thing. He just hopes it will be powerful enough to save Queenie’s life.

Maureen is also an interesting character, as the wife who is left behind. She seems to privately wonder if there is more than a platonic motive for Queenie’s sudden contact with Harold. She struggles but, like her husband, is shown to be a strong woman in the face of terrible adversity. The absence of their son is a great struggle for both husband and wife, but they seem unable to talk about it with one another and just long for the day that he returns to them.

Other characters come and go as Harold travels up the country, and through his interactions with them, he discovers that everyone has secrets, everyone is a bit strange, and on the whole, people are nice, kind and just want someone to listen to them. He becomes something of a hero and idol to a few people as his story makes its way into the news, and there are scenes reminscent of the ones in Forrest Gump (the film, not the book) when he goes running just because he feels like it and gains a cult following. There are, of course, unpleasant characters along the way, but their scarcity highlights what Harold believes – that people are ultimately good.

The English countryside is described in vivid beauty, so richly described that you can almost smell the peonies, feel the gorse, and reach out and pick the roses. It may just be black squiggles on a white page, but Joyce has painted whole landscapes here with an apparent love for the nation.

Above all, this is a book about faith, and how a little bit can go a long way. It’s a remarkable story and I can’t think of a better way to begin the journey through 2014 than with reading about Harold’s journey. So, let’s plow on. Best foot forward.

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