Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Can "faith" accomplish the impossible? Pt 2

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry 
by Rachel Joyce
Part 2: The Walk and...the end, the beginning, or both?
There was so much to discuss and I wanted to use so many direct quotes, I have split this review into two parts. I love Joyce's writing style.
Read Part 1 here...

          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 to imagine something bigger and something infinitely more beautiful than 
     the obvious. Remembering his own doubt, Harold was humbled. 
          "That is so kind," he said softly. He shook their hands and thanked them. 
          The waitress nipped her face toward his and kissed the air above his ear. 
          (page 58)

Here was acceptance as poor Harold had never had before in his life. Good for him! Each of us should feel this, yet hopefully much earlier in life! And we learn that Harold is also capable of giving such acceptance...

At one of his stops early on, Harold meets a man who proceeds to confess to him that he travels to this town once a week to meet with a young male lover, something he claims no one else knows about him... He has noticed a hole in one of his young partner's trainers and is considering whether to buy a new pair for him or not...

          Harold sat in silence. The silver-haired gentleman was in truth nothing like the 

     man Harold had first imagined him to be. He was a chap like himself, with a     
     unique pain; and yet there would be no knowing that if you passed him in the   
     street, or sat opposite him in the cafe and did not share his teacake. Harold 
     pictured the gentleman on a station platform, smart in his suit, looking no 
     different from anyone else. It must be the same all over England. People were 
     buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no 
     one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The 
     inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared 
     both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that. Moved and humbled, he passed his 
     paper napkins. 
          "I think I would buy him new trainers," said Harold. He dared to lift his eyes to 
     meet those of the silver-haired gentleman. The irises were a watery blue; the whites
     so pink they appeared sore. It tore at Harold's heart, but he didn't look away. Briefly
     the two men sat, not speaking, until a lightness filled Harold and caused him to 
     offer a smile. He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, 
     it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in
     a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to 
     talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had 
     neglected so many things that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie 
     and the past. 
          The gentleman smiled too. "Thank you." He wiped his mouth and his fingers, 
     then the rim of his cup. As he stood he said, "I don't suppose our paths will cross 
     again but I am glad we met. I am glad we talked."
           They shook hands and parted, and left the remains of the teacake behind. 
               (page 89)

Beautifully expressed, poignant and so very true!! :) For me, this was a brilliant summary of Harold's trip. Reminiscent of the theme in Joyce's eshort-story, A Faraway Smell of Lemon; we never know what small bit of interaction will actually change someone's life for the better. So often it may well be just a few minutes spent listening to and accepting them, and truly hearing them. Though we learn that Harold has always had this skill to some degree.

When he catches Queenie in the supply cupboard at work, she is quite upset and depressed about her treatment at the hands of the other employees, and he listens and speaks with her briefly, then offers his hand to gently lead her out. Much to his surprise, she accepts, then signals the interaction is at an end:

     Then she smoothed her skirt, as if Harold were a crease and she needed to brush  

     him off. (page 67)

I just love this metaphor! All is back to reality with this one motion. Yet we also learn that with his own son he is not as compassionate as he might have been.

     Better still, in the absence of words, he might have taken David in his arms. But he 

     had not. He'd done none of those things. He felt the boy's fear so keenly, he could 
     see no way round it. The morning his son looked up at his father and asked for 
     help, Harold gave nothing. He fled to his car and went to work.
          Why must he remember? 
          He hunched his shoulders and drove his feet harder, as if he wasn't so much 
     walking to Queenie as away from himself. (page 70)

Aha! Yes, so true...I believe he was trying to escape...himself...Maureen...his he saw it, his failures... This is evidenced by his walking harder and faster as memories flood his mind, trying to suppress them as he has done before. And how better to remember and think about the past than to completely isolate yourself as Harold did. I'm convinced individuals do not spend enough time alone in our "modern world" so that we can just think and consider. 

          He couldn't help feeling that, even though Maureen had not said it, what she was

    implying about his retirement fund was correct. He should not be spending it solely 
    on himself and without her approval.
         Though, God knows, it was a long time since he had done anything to impress 
     her. (page 78)

There was a part of me that disagreed with the idea of his retirement to only be spent upon consensual agreement. After all, it is his retirement... However, if their marriage was healthy at this point, I guess there would be discussion before money is spent, especially considering the fact that Maureen had not worked outside the home and was therefore reliant upon Harold's income. 

Joyce does intersperse some humor; I laughed out loud when Harold noticed vehicles as he walked alongside the road:   

          There were single drivers, and he supposed they must be office workers because 

     their faces appeared fixed as if the joy had been squeezed away... (page 17) 

Hah! There are many mornings when I'm sure my face reflects that same feeling as I commute to work! :)

It was David who reminded Maureen that she had indeed met Queenie who had arrived at their house one day with an "urgent" message for which Maureen had failed to deliver to him. So much as Alice in Wife 22, Maureen had intimate knowledge about Harold's job, though in this case it was the fact that someone else took the fall for him and was fired because of his own actions, unlike Alice's husband William, who was himself fired as a direct result of his own behaviors. I keep wondering if, like Alice, Maureen will never reveal her knowledge, or if she will eventually disclose to  Harold what she knows. I believe this is why Maureen was able to accept Harold's rash decision to keep walking toward Queenie; otherwise, I doubt she would have been able to accept it at all. 

Harold's rather humorous memory of his mother's one and only letter to him: 

          Dear son,...New Zealand is a wonderful plase. I had to go. Muthering was not 

     me. Send my best regards to your dad. It wasn't her leaving that was the worst part. 
     It was the fact she couldn't even spell her explanation. (page 104)

It is more than obvious that David and Harold never truly communicated. At age 18, Harold tries to speak with him about his recent admission to Cambridge and David totally ignores him:

          Harold had wanted to take him in his arms and hold on tight. He wanted to say, 

     You beautiful boy of mine; how do you get to be so clever, when I am not? But he 
     had looked at David's impenetrable face and said, "Well, gosh. That's good. Golly."
          (page 106)

While most teens seem to be uncommunicative, we have hints throughout the book that David's personality was darker than most...even as a teen! 

There are clues throughout the book about the ways in which Harold and Maureen's relationship is changing, although they're apart, or perhaps due to their being apart from each other. Maureen seems to immediately feel relieved, but soon realizes even the TV and radio cannot "fill" the house. She moves back into the main bedroom and tells Harold, though he assumes she has then moved his belongings to the other bedroom where she's been sleeping alone all these years. It is the theme of their first meeting that is used to denote their burgeoning remembrance of life as a couple. 

Although well meaning, many strangers end up joining Harold and actually delaying and interrupting his progress to a great degree, even commercializing it. Though it is from one of these people that he learns that Queenie has actually perked up to a great degree since his initial message regarding his intention to see her. 

          Harold walked with these strangers and listened. He judged no one... He had 

     learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him 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 been doing so for a long time. Harold could no 
     longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the 
     same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human. 
          He walked so surely it was as if all his life he had been waiting to get up from 
     his chair. (page 158)

So we are left with many lessons about humanity and life; and we can only guess as to the impact this has made upon Maureen and Harold's future as a couple and as human beings. Though I feel hopeful that they have now truly reunited and will live together much more happily than they have done in the past. Although Harold does complete his "journey" in many ways, is he able to truly save Queenie? Or is he the one saved?

This book sparked much discussion amongst our book club members. While philosophical, it was easily read and understood.
 Obviously, I recommend it!    

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