I finished Harold Fry on Friday. Today is Monday. So it has taken me an unprecedented three days to sit down to blog about this. I have been sitting here considering why this is, and I think what it came down to is that in the end I found this novel a dissapointment. There were some beautiful moments and all, but in the end it didn’t live up to the (well, okay, my) hype.
I think my overall malaise with this novel, by the end, can be attributed to three things.
1. Harold’s malaise
Harold starts off as such a sunny character, full of interest in the world. But about two third of the way through the book he becomes miserable and morose. And I am sure that this is supposed to be some kind of metaphor for society losing its hope, or similar. But I just found it sad, depressing and a little boring. Harold’s fascination with his journey is what drives the reader’s interest. Without him being interested, why should you be?
2. The other ‘pilgrims’
Now, don’t get me wrong, I can’t understand the reasons behind the onset of Harold’d malaise. The other pilgrims are bloody annoying. And boring. And self-centred. Again, I can see why they are there, as some kind of social commentary, but they took away from the delightfulness of the novel and made it darker, and sadder, and also a little duller and more mundane.
3. In summary: the unloveliness
As you will have seen from my earlier post, I was a sucker for the loveliness of the first half of this novel. I loved the winding English countryside, Harold’s hope and the characters he meets. It was such a bygone (or maybe never was) England. But the second half is realistic, and damp and sad. It rains, Harold gets depressed, people abuse his goodwill, he even loses his dog. Maybe some people will appreciate this ‘dose of realism’, but I didn’t.
I have been wondering (and I may be well off the mark) about whether the whole thing is a metaphor for religion in some way. And I am not talking about the reference to this being a pilgrimage, because the constant misuse of the word ‘pilgrimage’ (not just in this context) is just irritating. There is just a feeling in some of the quotes e.g. “Maybe that’s what the world needs. A little less sense, and a little more faith”. And it strikes me that you have this man, with a mission and a genuine idea which is “infintently more beautiful than obvious” (see quote below) which gets usurped by his followers, he loses faith etc. I may be wrong, or it may be that people are saying this everywhere (remember, I am not reading any reviews….) but just a thought.
But, just as it is too easy to only remember the demise of a relationship, it is important that I don’t forget, what I loved about the gentle, meandering first half of this novel…. so here goes.
1. The descriptions of people
This book describes people so you can absolutely envisage them. And it does so in unexpected ways, that constantly made me chuckle (internally, of course). For instance:
“Rex was a short man with tidy feet at the bottom, a small head at the top and a very round body in the middle, causing Harold to fear sometimes that if he fell there would be no stopping him. He would roll down the hill like a barrel.”
“He supposed they must be office workers because their faces appeared fixed as if all the joy had been squeezed away.”
2. Maureen (and David)
I love Maureen. Everybody knows a Maureen: bossy, practical, bustling, a little overbearing. Terribly English in her inability to express her love except through bossiness and criticism. I knew I loved her from the very first quote on the first page and (despite everything) continued to throughout.
“That’s the marmalade, Harold. Jam is red. If you look at things before you pick them up, you’ll find it helps.”
“The useful thing about a sunny day was that it showed up the dust, and dried the laundry in almost less time than the tumble drier.”
I also liked that she recognised her behaviours, but felt unable to stop them. This made her feel particularly real, particularly human.
“Sometimes she said these things but she didn’t mean them. They had become the fabric of the way she talked.”
From the little that you hear directly of him (aside from the sad bits) I also developed a soft spot for David. How could I not, after this interaction:
“‘I don’t object to people being different’, he said, but his son merely sucked his teeth and glanced at his mother. ‘You read The Telegraph'”.
3. The goodness of it
The first of this novel mostly won my heart by being so good. As in kind and gentle and a little old fashioned. This is mostly driven by Harold’s early internactions and his thoughts on these. For example:
“They believed in him. They had looked at him in his yachting shoes, and listened to what he said, and they had made a decision in their hearts and minds to ignore the evidence and imagine something bigger and something infintely more beautiful than obvious”.
“He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled huim with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had done so for a long time.”
4. The Englishness of the novel and of Harold…
It is funny how this has become a recurring theme of something that I like about certain novels. I don’t feel particularly English. But there is a certain, old fashioned, hearty, Sunday roast, country lane Englishness (what I imagine the quote below refers to as “quintessential England”) that retains its appeal for most, I think. Even if in many places it doesn’t really exist anymore. There are so many wonderful moments in this novel about England and the English:
“Harold’s walk became the theme for Thought of the Day on Radio 4, and spawned leading articles about the nature of the modern pilgrimage, quintessential England, and the pluck of the Saga generation.”
“He had always been too English; by which he supposed he meant that he was ordinary. He lacked colour. Other people knew interesting stories, or had things to ask. He didn’t like to ask, because he didn’t like to offend. He wore a tie every day but sometimes he wondered if he was hanging on to an order or a set of rules that had never really existed.”
“I am a postwar child…. we don’t talk up our achievements, and we don’t throw things away. It’s just the way we were brought up.”
“He made a promise…he’s too polite to renege on that. It’s rather English and very endearing.”
5. My Grandma
There is something about moments in this very English book that remind me of my very un-English Grandma. This makes me very sentimental. And nothing more so than this quote:
“He could smell her musk sent. See the white powder on her skin and known, even without her being there, that if she allowed him to kiss her cheek it would have tasted of marshmallows.”
I am not going to talk about the small ish twist at the end. I saw it coming (I can’t remember why) and appreciated it, but don’t think it was particularly important to the novel per se and don’t want to ruin it for others.