Former actress and playwright Rachel Joyce has made a dream debut with her novel

First time author Rachel Joyce
First time author Rachel Joyce
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AS UNLIKELY heroes go, Harold Fry is pretty unlikely. Recently retired from a dull position in middle-management, his prospects seem to consist of bickering with his wife, Maureen, about the difference between jam and marmalade, and conversing about grass-cutting with his next door neighbour, Rex. Until one day, he sets out from his home in South Devon and just keeps walking. His destination is Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Like its protagonist, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the first novel by 49-year-old Rachel Joyce, has already come a long way. Picked by Waterstones as one of the most anticipated debuts of the year, it has sold in 29 countries, including China, Taiwan and Russia. Publishers Transworld are hoping for a hit akin to SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep; Joyce, like Watson, is a graduate of the Faber Writing Academy, and the two writers share the same agent.

Joyce speaks softly, carefully, about all the excitement, still surprised that the story she has been living with for years is causing such a stir. “I definitely had moments when it all fell apart, and you think, ‘I’m wasting everybody’s time’,” she says. A writer of radio drama, she turned down work to finish the book. “I didn’t have much money left. And then it all came right. But I certainly didn’t know that it would.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage is a story of the extraordinary rooted in ordinariness. Harold’s walk begins when he receives a letter from a woman he once knew, Queenie Hennessy, with whom he has lost touch. She is dying of cancer in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and is writing to say goodbye. He sets out to post a letter back, and somehow just keeps going, his 600-mile walk across England becoming a symbol for things that are unsaid, a poignant act of defiance in the face of old-age, infirmity, death itself. “I will keep walking,” he writes on a postcard to Queenie. “And you must keep living.”

Harold walks through rain and shine, in a pair of yachting shoes, without a map, compass or mobile phone. His journey progresses, funny and sad by turns, as does the journey of his wife Maureen, left at home. As their lives and their marriage unfold to us, we learn that no life is truly ordinary. “I find that very appealing, the blurring of the lines between what’s funny and what’s tragic,” says Joyce. “And what’s ordinary and what’s not, the big things in the small things.”

As Harold and Maureen emerge as rounded characters, so do the people Harold meets. In vivid vignettes, we meet the young doctor from Slovakia, forced to work as a cleaner and the sophisticated silver-haired gent who has travelled miles for a secret meeting with a rent boy. No-one is quite what they seem. No-one is ordinary. “I like writing people from a slightly sharp angle, and then throwing more light on them,” Joyce says. “I think in life we see somebody and make judgments very quickly about who they are and what they are. Or we think people are boring because they appear ordinary.”

Joyce’s decision to write about a 65-year-old man highlights how rare this is in contemporary fiction. Most protagonists are young, and even books which focus on the very old – Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin – usually do so in order to reflect back on their younger lives. The Unlikely Pilgrimage, however, is described as “coming of (old) age novel”. Joyce writes about retired people who are capable of change, growth, self-discovery, every bit as much as the young. “I do enjoy very much being in the company of older people. I think there’s a bit of me that wanted to celebrate the ordinary and the unsung, and maybe the slightly left behind.”

She also writes beautifully about walking, how the act of traversing a landscape on foot changes how one sees the world, bringing us close to the changing seasons, making us realise the aggression of the motor car. She walks often near her home in the Stroud valley in Gloucestershire, to keep herself “grounded”. She also planned Harold’s route meticulously, pinning pages from the road atlas to her study wall with the route marked on them. “It felt important to me that it really held together in order for me to be able to write it. The times I agonised about whether he would take the B-road, go to the left or go to the right …”

The story began life as a radio play in 2006, called To Be A Pilgrim. Joyce, who was an award-winning actress taking leading roles at the RSC and National Theatre before she quit to have a family, has been writing and adapting work for radio for 16 years. She always wrote prose, too, “but never did anything with it”. Harold Fry, however, seemed a story which hadn’t been fully explored. She signed up for the Faber Academy as a way of committing herself to finishing the book.

The radio play was written while her father was dying of cancer, so Harold’s story became entwined with her own. “I didn’t actively begin it as a play for [my dad] but it became in my mind a play for him, which I think I also knew he wouldn’t hear, and he didn’t. I think maybe it was about me trying to keep him alive, because we all knew he was dying, he didn’t want to die and we didn’t want him to die. He kept on having operations to try and fight it, and the chances of it working became less and less, and he became more and more reduced by this thing. It was really hard to watch. [The play] was definitely a thing that I escaped into.”

As is often the case with loss, moments of great sorrow were juxtaposed both with moments of great ordinariness and of absurdity. “My father died in France and my sisters and I went over with my mum to bring back his body. I remember going to the funeral parlour in France and being given a laminated menu of coffins, and thinking, surely there is an ice cream at the back of here! And then buying his air ticket – we had to pay in cash, and none of us had enough because we’d all got there so fast, so we were all trying to take out money from the cash point. We had some evenings where we laughed in the most desperate way.”

The novel is unflinching on the darker chapters of Harold’s journey, and Joyce says she drew directly on her own experiences of the writing process. “Because it’s about a journey, about somebody who’s doing something against the odds, something they’ve never really done before, I was able to put all the feelings that I had about writing a book into Harold’s journey, my doubts and insecurity and questions about whether anybody would ever read it. When you’ve invested months in something, and somebody says to you, ‘But it’s impossible to get a book published’, you think, ‘What am I doing?’ His journey and my journey were very much from the same place.”

In a very 21st-century twist, somewhere south of Coventry, the press gets wind of Harold’s journey. Before long, he’s is on the evening news, and people are tweeting about his progress. Equally suddenly, he finds himself with followers: a troubled young man, a woman fleeing a relationship break-up, a man trying to win custody of his children – each brings their own agenda. He finds himself the reluctant leader of a straggling, squabbling band of modern pilgrims.

“I did think a lot about what pilgrimage meant,” says Joyce. “I thought a lot about what it meant to have faith when you don’t believe in God and you don’t go to church but you still have a belief in something. Again, I think it comes down to making these quite big ideas ordinary again. I never thought of myself as writing a book about a pilgrimage as such, but about a man who made a journey which was in fact – if you looked at it in a certain light – a pilgrimage. He would see himself as anything other than an ordinary man setting off.” An ordinary man who goes a long way.

l The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is published by Doubleday, £12.99.