The Unlikely Pilgrimage is a parable about a man who starts to walk and whilst walking rediscovers himself. Faced with a husband who has gone walking his wife is left to her own resources, she also rediscovers herself and her love for her husband which had been pushed away for many a year. I found that I had to read The Unlikely Pilgrimage as a parable because the moment I tried to treat it as a literary novel I found myself questioning what happened. Yes, I could definitely imagine the people joining Harold in his walk because they’re in search of their own spirituality, I could also imagine some of them turning the walk into a publicity stunt. I found that I could not really picture someone like Harold starting to walk impulsively and more importantly, not stopping for some down to earth practical reason like painful feet, a lack of clothes and the wrong shoes. I also had a hard time accepting that within a few weeks he would know all the plant life around him and could identify all the edible plants and mushrooms (too Forrest Gump as far as I am concerned). As a beautifully written parable however I could accept Harold looking at the world with fresh eyes and seeing things he had never noticed before. I enjoyed the lovely way Joyce described plants and creatures encountered on his way. I could also accept him starting to walk to his former colleague Queenie who is dying of cancer. In his walk all the aspects of a parable are present: cleaning your head of thoughts, embracing your task, starting to have doubts, meeting people and sharing stories with them – learning new things, being on the point of return when something happens that makes you embrace your task with renewed vigour, going through several moments of doubts, encountering the ones who do not really grasp your task and finally completing your task and preferably saving a person. That last thing does not happen. Though Queenie has found new energy knowing that Harold is walking towards her, it does not stop the cancer from growing. His arrival does make her die peacefully, which in a way is an achievement on its own. Harold is met by his wife Maureen and they find that they can finally admit once more that they love each other and that neither one was to blame for their son’s suicide.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry sometimes teeters along the too sentimental. Joyce mostly manages to steer away from it by using small words to describe major things happening. She never reverts to big words or pompously formulated sentences that carry a message. She lovingly describes the people Harold meets. By keeping things small and tender Joyce emphasizes the enormous task Harold has set out to perform. The Unlikely Pilgrimage is an emotional parable, not a sentimental one. It is definitely a feel good story, but one that does not become tacky because Joyce lovingly describes the normal, the average. Harold’s parable takes place in everyday England with everyday people and that makes The Unlikely Pilgrimage a nice parable.