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Love, Faith, Regrets and Forgiveness
on 5 September 2013
It is amazing how Rachel Joyce not only convinces the reader of the feasibility of such an improbable quest, she also manages to inspire him/her to actually root for Harold Fry, the newly-retired teetotaler (from a brewery, no less). He walks out one day to post a reply to Queenie Hennessy, who has written to tell him she was dying of cancer in a hospice all the way up in Berwick-upon-Tweed (as North as it is South in Kingsbridge, where he is from). But instead of posting the letter, he keeps on walking, and inspired by a garage girl, who tells him about her own aunt with cancer, and that "if you have faith, you can do anything", he resolves that as long as he is walking, Queenie will live (nevermind that he left his phone at home and is wearing yachting shoes).
Interwoven into this journey is Harold's reflections on his estranged marriage to Maureen, and the tenuous relationship with his son David, whom Maureen confides in, when her discovery that her husband has embarked on this ridiculous pilgrimage turns from bewilderment, to anger and despair. An unintended consequence of all that time in the wide open country as he treks treacherously by the side of motorways is the opportunity for Harold to confront and wrestle with the ghosts of his past.
Joyce paints a rather poignant picture of Harold, and shows his struggles when the normally reticent man has to explain his quest to complete strangers: "He took a deep breath. If he heard the sound of words coming from his mouth enough times, maybe he would feel like the sort of person who could get up and do something about them." The failure of communication in his marriage is also rather efficiently summed up in these lines : "Sometimes her words sliced down on his before they had even reached his mouth."
Harold the child had also had to deal with disapproval from the string of aunts his father takes up with when Harold's mother abandoned them: "'He's awfully tall,' his Aunty May had said of him once, as if this was something you could rectify, like a leaking tap."
Not only is her desription of characters sharp and insightful, Joyce is a skilful writer who comes up with such beautiful lines of prose, you just want to read them over and over again, like this afternoon scene just after heavy rain: "To the east, the cloud tore open and a low belt of polished silver light broke through. Harold stood and watched as the mass of grey split again and again, revealing new colours: blue, burnt amber, peach, green and crimson. Then the cloud became suffused with a dulled pink, as if those vibrant colours had bled through, merging as they met. He couldn't move. He wanted to witness every change. The light on the land was gold; even his skin was warm with it. At his feet the earth creaked and whispered. The air smelt green and full of beginnings. A soft mist rose, like wisps of smoke." The reader's senses are totally engaged in the picture Joyce paints.
Such beautiful, and at times heartwrenching prose would be pointless without a compelling story. Joyce has achieved that rare feat of meeting both criteria. At the end of the day, it is the pronouncement: "But maybe it's what the world needs. A little less sense, and a little more faith", that makes this tale such a powerful one.