Harold has been letting life quietly slip by. The bitterness of his marriage to Maureen has dulled into a standoff of silences and acerbic comments from her and resignation from him. In retirement, David, Harold’s son is absent and has been an uncaring son at best. We later delve into their relationship through flashbacks while Harold is walking the length of England, but I am getting ahead of myself.
One day Harold receives a letter from Queenie who worked with him over 20 years ago. He owes her a debt of gratitude which we do not fully understand until we meet her in Berwick Upon Tweed dying of cancer in a particularly undignified and painful way. The letter leads Harold to look back over his life and assess it more honestly than he has ever done. He, uncharacteristically, takes a walk to deliver a reply and on a whim, keeps on walking, eventually deciding to walk from his home in Devon to Berwick Upon Tweed.
As most journeys are in literature, this one becomes an internal journey as much as a physical one. His, at times physically painful reflections lead to an eventual truce with himself and with his marriage and both he and Maureen gain a new perspective on their lives and relationship.His relationship with Queenie is explored and while at first it seems an unlikely one, they are both outsiders who recognise an essential loneliness in each other. The friendship is not what it seems and the jealousy and guilt surrounding it is explained by Maureen towards the end of the journey. Her newfound respect for her husband and her enlightenment is painfully and tenderly explored.
Harold’s walk sparks the imagination of a nation and he becomes a minor celebrity further testing his new-found confidence and respect for his fellows. Harold’s journey had me captivated from the start and while the book was unashamedly didactic in its message of tolerance and acceptance it was delivered in such an English way that it worked for me. The gentle approach and the deft drawing of the characters Harold met along the way was enthralling and the aspects of the way that his inner journey linked to his physical circumstances was realistic. I found myself really loving Harold and understanding him and wanting him to come through with a good ending to his journey. That the novelist handled the ending so carefully showed respect for her readers.
A charming, heartwarming tale that you will not want to finish. I know I will read this again.