What struck me about Rachel Joyce’s debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry when I purchased it was that older characters are gaining momentum as protagonists in literary novels as I couldn’t help thinking of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. After I finished it, my thoughts on the book changed because this felt more like a kindness of strangers story as it had no political symbolism.
Harold Fry is motivated to deliver in a letter in person after he hears from an old friend living in a hospice who once did him a big favour twenty years earlier. When Harold first plans to post a reply to the letter his intention is to go to the local postbox but the chance conversation he has with a girl prods him forward on his pilgrimage through the British countryside to his former saviour. As he walks, Harold starts to believe that his friend Queenie Hennessy will still manage to be there when he arrives.
Along the way Harold encounters various characters who could have been unkind but are not and finds serenity in the task at hand. He also develops the courage to come out of his shell in the absence of his wife Maureen who has so far regarded him as a defective spouse and father figure. In a cruel twist of fate, his wife, stunned by her husband’s abrupt departure and lacking a way of getting back in touch because he failed to take a cellphone, begins to desire his return home.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has both good and bad points. I was really into the beginning of the book but as various hangers-on join Harold on his walk and the journey halfway becomes a full-fledged media circus, my interest waned. While I get this is a love story which addresses the rekindling of a marriage, the liberally applied sentimentality was not to my taste.
This is a story about one so-called independent woman Bathsheba Everdene (who seems incredibly dependent if you think about it), her three male admirers and her propensity for poor judgement. When we first meet her, she is a beautiful but high-spirited young woman with no fortune to her name. To top it all, she saves the life of Gabriel Oak when he falls asleep in his hut and almost dies of smoke inhalation. When Gabriel asks her to reveal her name, she challenges him to find it out for himself. Upon learning her name, he visits her aunt to ask if he can court Bathsheba but is informed she has many lovers. This woman then runs after him to declare her aunt lied about her. Suddenly the conversation takes a turn to discuss a marital union between them because Gabriel assumes she must be interested but she assures him that she does not love him. He, the silly fool, spends the rest of his life devoted to her while she indulges in all manner of follies.
Gabriel Oak happens to be a poor shepherd who loses his farm after an accident befalls all of his sheep due because of a rookie dog that misdirects them to fall off a cliff. Once this happens, he seeks new employment in the town of Weatherbury. It is not going too well for him until one day he helps fend off fire from a farmhouse. It turns out Bathsheba is the mistress as she inherited it from a deceased uncle. She offers him work as a shepherd.
Meanwhile she sends off a Valentine with the words Marry Me to neighbor Farmer Boldwood as a joke. The duped farmer takes this jest seriously and he becomes a relentless and persistent suitor much to her annoyance. He is also refused the offer of marriage he makes to Bathsheba because she does not love him. But he does get her to say she will reconsider her refusal.
On that night, she meets the third and most despicable of her three admirers. He is a handsome soldier known as Sergeant Troy. What Bathsheba does not know is that he impregnated a local servant girl called Fanny Robinson who had gone missing. She embraces his suggestion of marriage.
When Fanny returns, Troy arranges a time to meet her; he loves Fanny. Bathsheba comes to realise she has made terrible decisions. Fanny, overworked and exhausted, dies in childbirth on her way to meet Troy. Embarrassed and ashamed by his actions, Troy fakes a suicide and joins a performing circus.
Meanwhile Farmer Boldwood makes the best of his adversary’s ‘death’ by resuming his courtship. His repeated persistence secures him a result when he gets Bathsheba to promise she will marry him in six years if her missing husband does not return. Unfortunately, Troy chooses that night to reappear after hearing she is prospering. Enraged by his intrusion, poor Boldwood has his revenge by shooting Troy. This leads to a jail sentence for the misused farmer for whom you can’t help but feel sorry.
Finally there is an opportunity for hard-working and faithful Gabriel who has become a flourishing bailiff to reunite with Bathsheba and his devotion to her is rewarded when she finally says yes.
For a male, Thomas Hardy, the author of this work is very intuitive about how the female mind works. It’s a shame he did not dabble in relationship counselling. I believe he would have done very well. Even if Gabriel finds happiness with this undeserving trollop of a woman, it is a bit of a sting she rejected him when he lacked any money and accepted him when he had it.
I have discovered short stories are something I put by the wayside unless they are the sort written by Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and Jeffrey Archer. Thinking it is time I should end this discrimination against the poor genre which is overlooked, I have opened myself to reading and reviewing an Australian short story per day for just this week. We will see how long I manage to keep it up!
The Sandfly Man by Matthew Condon is a short story about convictions that spring up and take precedence in the innocence of childhood; he expresses with convincing imagery of the pesticide man of the park how fears that inspire terror from back then can remain with us until our transition into adulthood. His reflective glimpses of how mundane our life can be in the world of the beach caravan park as a home away from home is insightful in its banality.
Queensland in his idyllic narrative setting of Tallebudgera Creek Caravan Park is described so well you cannot help but feel through how he radiates the hot, sticky feeling of summer and the pleasure evoked through moments at the Burleigh Heads beach in adolescence, that it is being conveyed by a native. It is an odd contrast when he details the pleasure of his parents and their friends in a simple game of canasta while he lies in abject terror of his conception of the Sandfly Man. This figure which has arrested his imagination causes him to fear it far more than the fearsome combination of the ‘government, devil and God all rolled into one’.
In its conclusion, we are left to contemplate the inability of the author to return to the caravan park even though his sister does. The family tradition is carried out by his sister after she had kids herself since she forages out her own caravan park space and the card playing scenario continues with a younger generation in her circle of family friends; but the author is an outsider who sits by himself in the lounge on Christmas morning watching television. The door to the past is not open to him.
The fear of the ghost of the Sandfly Man with his swirling mist is still to elude our writer.