To Be A Pilgrim

The visitors appear each day at three o’clock.

     They arrive a muddle of raincoats and carrier bags and walking sticks, and tumble past the nurses’ station like leaves. They colour in an NHS grey, sketching the air with stories of a life once lived, and leaving a trail of sweet wrappers and paperbacks and fresh pyjamas wherever they walk.

     When a bell is rung, they scrape plastic chairs on plastic lino, and disappear back to an ordinary world, fattened with self-sacrifice and thick with relief at a life resumed.

     But there are others. In side rooms all around the hospital, families pleat around besides, saying untidy goodbyes to those who drift between this world and the next. They try to pour a lifetime of unspoken words into the last few hours of life, emptying themselves of guilt and silence and regret. They whisper into ears that cannot hear, and hold hands that cannot feel. They make a journey for someone who doesn’t even know they are there, because it’s the whispering that counts, not the listening. The holding, not the feeling.

     It’s the pilgrimage that matters.

     ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ is the debut novel from Rachel Joyce. It tells the tale of a man who sets out to post a letter to a dying friend, and who has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. Harold believes that as long as he keeps walking, his friend will live. It’s a beautifully written story of faith and regret and discovery, and I came to love Harold so much, I was willing him on with every step of his canvas shoes.

     I see a little of Harold in those who gather around the dying. I see the pilgrimage they make each day and I hear the rush of last-minute words, the forfeit for a life half-spoken. I see hope so brittle, it breaks before my very eyes, and I see regret so deep and so heartfelt, it sits by the bed like a silent visitor.

     I see a little of Harold in all of us. I see the certainty that no matter how mindful we are and how wisely we choose our words, we will one day find ourselves waiting by a bedside with a lifetime of thoughts in our mouth, holding a hand that can no longer feel.

     And we will make an unlikely pilgrimage of our own.


‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, by Rachel Joyce, is published by Doubleday on March 15th.

You can order it from Amazon UK  here

Or from Waterstones here.


But please don’t forget your local, independent bookshop.


Your life will be a better place for knowing Harold Fry …




  1. February 20, 2012 / 6:18 pm

    What a lovely, thoughtful post. Thank you.

  2. February 20, 2012 / 6:19 pm

    Oh no! ANOTHER book to add to the TBR pile!
    A beautiful review, Jo. Thank you.

  3. February 20, 2012 / 6:30 pm

    Another post which made me cry… I remember holding that hand so well.

  4. February 20, 2012 / 6:49 pm

    When my husband died I was never there to hold his hand but my life since has nevertheless been a pilgrimage of sorts.
    The book sounds wonderful and just the sort of thing I should read. Thanks for the recommendation and thanks to nettiewriter for putting it on Twitter which is how I found it!

  5. Isabel Rogers
    February 20, 2012 / 6:51 pm

    The best reviews are from those who know what they are talking about … Thanks Joanna.

  6. February 20, 2012 / 7:02 pm

    Your review actually brought a lump to my throat, probably because I’ve reached the age when I can no longer think myself immortal. Must add this book to my list.

  7. Erin
    February 20, 2012 / 7:06 pm

    Another beautiful post Jo. I would like to know more about Harold too and will be adding this to be pile.

  8. February 20, 2012 / 8:03 pm

    Oh crikey, Jo. I’ve spent so much of the last two years being that person holding that hand… and the six weeks before Christmas doing it every day. I no longer have a hand to hold, and it still feels wrong. That book sounds amazing. I must get it.

  9. February 20, 2012 / 8:05 pm

    Oh, how absolutely lovely. What a gorgeous review. Your writing makes me go goosebumpy and is so insightful – I felt every word. The book sounds wonderful too!

  10. Lyn McCulloch
    February 20, 2012 / 10:31 pm

    Great review and another book to add to the TBR pile. Thanks for a really thought-provoking post. x

  11. February 21, 2012 / 12:11 am

    Your writing is amazing as usual! This sounds like a book I should be investigating,

  12. February 21, 2012 / 9:31 am

    I must read this book…oh those whispers of guilty regret!

  13. February 21, 2012 / 6:22 pm

    A wonderful post, Jo – and a wonderful review! I am adding Harold to my TBR pile as we speak. x

  14. Jo McIntosh (@has2bpurple)
    February 21, 2012 / 7:11 pm

    Your writing has such insight and feeling Joanna. I can identify so much with what you say.
    Must get this book too as I want to read more about Harold now! Thank you x

  15. February 27, 2012 / 10:25 am

    I’m sure Harold is fantastic but I’d prefer to read your stories in a book, Joanna. No one writes about the times when we feel so helpless and vulnerable as well as you do.
    I remember this so well with my Mum and I know when my Dad’s time comes to go, there’ll be so much I want to tell him even though we’ve spent a lifetime talking.

  16. March 17, 2012 / 12:21 pm

    Thanks for such a moving and beautiful review, which led me to pre-order the book.

    I’m now a third of the way through – and something makes me want to slow down and savour this little pilgrimage through the detailed writing and touching story. But there’s another something that doesn’t want to put this wonderful book down or stop reading.

    I am already booking myself in for a second read of it because I know I’ll want to… Go, Harold!

  17. March 18, 2012 / 12:24 pm

    I’ve ordered it. I trust you! I’m on a strange pilgrimage of my own at the moment. Aren’t we all. x

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