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Paperback review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, By Rachel Joyce

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She who would valiant be ...

Rachel Joyce's debut novel has taken a fairly simple narrative form, the allegory, and updated it. The journey of Christian through Vanity Fair and the Slough of Despond to the Celestial City was John Bunyan's genius creation, as his humble, everyman hero struggled on his way with his burden on his back. It was a religious tale, of course, full of symbolism. How does Joyce's modern take on it fare?

The withdrawal of religion from the lives of so many of us means a necessary change in our relationship with symbolism. It's no accident that Charlotte Brontë produced novels full of symbolism, being brought up in a religious household; the same could be said for Jeanette Winterson. Joyce's tale eschews all such symbolism for self-help: Harold Fry is ostensibly setting out on his long walk from Devon to Berwick-on-Tweed to save his friend, Queenie Hennessy, who is dying of cancer in a nursing home. Really, though, he is trying to save himself from the "slough of despond" into which his own life has sunk.

"Self-help" sounds trite, though: Joyce has written an appealing, sentimental story about "it never being too late to right a wrong" indeed, but she also has created, with admirable ease, the kind of character whom readers will struggle to forget, who is genuine from the very beginning (despite having secrets of his own). Her prose style is appropriately straightforward yet also emotionally gripping, to make a 21st-century morality tale that ultimately, and perhaps surprisingly, celebrates the kindness of strangers.

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