'The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelled of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn't eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen's telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbours' close-board fencing.'
Harold Fry is an unremarkable man, aged sixty-five and six months into his retirement. One day he receives a letter from an old friend. She tells him she's dying of cancer in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He writes a short inadequate reply and walks to the post box. He walks past the first post box, and past the next, and then, before he knows it, he's resolved to walk the four hundred plus miles to see his friend Queenie in person.
At times both moving and humorous, the novel tells the story of his journey. As Harold walks, he reflects on his friendship with Queenie and his troubled relationships with his wife Maureen and his son David. He starts to believe that by walking to Berwick he can atone for his past mistakes and somehow save Queenie's life.
On the way he suffers terrible physical hardships. He's unfit and not equipped for such a journey, walking in boat shoes and without any equipment or even - heaven forbid - a mobile phone. His wife is not at all impressed, but Harold feels alive in a way he has not felt for years. He encounters a host of unusual characters, from the girl in the garage with her 'happy to help' badge, to the tramp who dances with him in the street. Like Bunyan's pilgrim, Harold learns many lessons on his journey. His brief encounter with a man who tells Harold of his unconventional relationship with a much younger man causes him to reflect:
'The silver-haired gentleman was in truth nothing like the man Harold had first imagined him to be. He was a chap like himself, with a unique pain; and yet there would be no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a cafe and did not share his teacake. Harold pictured the gentleman on a station platform, smart in his suit, looking no different from anyone else. It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that. Moved and humbled, he passed his paper napkin.'
Joyce tells the story well, moving between Harold's present hardships and past reflections with ease. Without being particularly deep or challenging, it's a very enjoyable read.