Thursday, December 03, 2015

Review of 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry'

I didn't like this very much. Rather like Harold, I felt compelled to finish what I'd started, but it was really a hard slog. There were parts that I liked, and I didn't feel able to give up, but I couldn't say the experience was enjoyable.

That's partly because it touches on subjects that are uncomfortable. I'm aware that as a bloke I am inclined to avoid books that are emotionally difficult in favour of those with intellectually interesting subject matter, evocative atmospheres or complex plots that are like puzzles. I don't often read things that deal with difficult feelings, particularly feelings about stuff that is difficult for me personally - and this has lots of that. Death of loved ones, ageing and dementia, relationships between fathers and sons, love between partners, suppressed anger at some of my discomfort in reading the book might have been about that.

But it's uncomfortable in another way too. Like lots of 'walking across England' books (mainly non-fiction) this is a state of the nation book, and Rachel Joyce looks and England and doesn't much like what she sees. A lot of the time it felt like sneering to me. Part of the point of the main character is that he is emotionally constipated, that he feels much but does not express it or deal with it. But that's overlaid with the idea that this is function of his lower-middle-class outlook and tastes. It seems to me to come from the same place that once found ceramic flying ducks on a sitting-room wall to be screamingly funny, before they became ironic and thus a signifier of good (i.e. metropolitan) taste. The author is mainly sympathetic to 'ordinary' people, but I can't help thinking that she finds their tastes both sad and funny, and that we are meant to do the same.

And some of the plot devices are frankly clunky. I might have let them go if I was enjoying it anyway but I wasn't, so they were annoying. Half the time Harold is emotionally illiterate, and then he sits down and writes a long and heartfelt letter to a virtual stranger (the girl in the garage) that ties up the various loose plot ends that haven't been explicitly revealed. And the girl then takes the letter to show it to Harold's wife. I know it's fiction, but still.

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