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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

Untangling The Wreckage Of A Relationship

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel - Rachel Joyce

Despite inhabiting the same house in Devon for most of their adult lives, Harold and Maureen Fry live emotionally separate lives. When a letter arrives from Queenie, an old colleague of Harold’s, to say that she is dying of cancer, Harold pens a brief reply and sets off to the post box. But the inadequacy of his response prevents him posting his letter. Instead, without any proper preparation and wearing only his yachting shoes, he sets out to walk the six hundred miles to Berwick upon Tweed, the northernmost town in England, where Queenie lies dying in a hospice.

During the course of this walk both Harold and Maureen, whom he leaves behind, begin separately to untangle the wreckage of their relationship, and in particular to consider the truth about the son they idolized. In doing so, they surprise themselves by rediscovering their love for each other.

It’s an interesting idea for a novel and it’s refreshing to read a love story featuring such elderly characters. There are some fine lines such as, ‘Maureen gave a shrill laugh that sounded like she had just emptied it out of a packet,’ but there are also a lot of platitudes including, ‘It was as much of a gift to receive as it was to give,’ or ‘The people he met, the places he passed were all steps in his journey and he kept a place inside his heart for each of them.’

Entertaining and moving in places, this is the sort of book that people call life-affirming but for me it felt too whimsical and altogether too simple. What redeems it from outright sentimentality is the climax in which Harold finally reaches the hospice and encounters the awful reality of someone dying of throat cancer. This is a powerful and compelling scene and the one moment when the book really lives up to its potential.