Those with the patience to accompany the protagonist on this meandering journey will receive an emotional payoff at the end.
The debut novel by an award-winning British radio playwright (and actor) offers an allegory that requires many leaps of faith, while straddling the line between the charming and cloying (as well as the comic and melodramatic). The title character has recently retired from his office job at a brewery, lives with a wife who hasn’t loved him for decades—since their intelligent, perhaps disturbed son sparked her estrangement from her husband—and appears destined to live his life in everyday limbo until the grave. Then, one day, he receives a letter from a female co-worker with whom he had once been close but hasn’t been in contact for 20 years. She is dying from cancer and has written to let him know, to say goodbye. Without planning or preparation, he embarks on the title’s “unlikely pilgrimage,” somehow believing that if he can walk the hundreds of miles over the many months it will take him, she will remain alive to welcome him. On his journey, he meets a bunch of characters, becomes something of a celebrity and learns a little bit more about the meaning of life. These lessons are articulated in homilies such as “you could be ordinary and attempt something extraordinary,” and “Maybe it’s what the world needs. A little less sense, and a little more faith.” Maybe, but if such sentiments seem akin to those from one of Mitch Albom’s bestselling parables, the novel’s evocation of everyday British reticence, heartbreak and wonder occasionally suggest the depths of the great Graham Swift. The final chapters of the novel resolve the mysteries that have been underlying the rest—how the son divided his parents, why the co-worker had disappeared from Harold’s life—and there’s a powerful resolution in which all’s well that ends well.
Manipulative but moving, for readers who don’t mind having their strings pulled.