One for the Books: A literary trip to today's England

By Mary Louise Ruehr Published:

Let’s take a literary trip to modern-day England and meet some of the town folk, who are drawn so realistically in these two books, you will think you know them.

The first book is really special: “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce. I fell in love with this novel when I opened it up and saw the promise in the illustrated map by Laura Hartman Maestro, and it never let me down.

Harold Fry is a gentle man. He and his wife, Maureen, both in their 60s, live in Kingsbridge on England’s southern coast. One day, he receives a letter from his former co-worker, Queenie, who’s in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, more than 500 miles away at the very tip-top of the country. She is in the final stage of a terminal illness and “is writing to say goodbye.”

He hadn’t heard from Queenie in 20 years, but he writes back to her right away and goes out to mail his letter. And he just keeps walking. He gets it into his mind that if he tells her he’s coming to see her, she will wait for him; as long as he walks, she’ll stay alive. This time, he won’t let her down.

Harold is completely unprepared for an adventure. He has on terrible shoes and inadequate clothing. He doesn’t even have a toothbrush or his phone, since he was only intending to mail a letter. Yet he keeps walking. His feet blister, his legs scream, rain soaks his clothes. Yet he keeps walking.

And as he walks, he begins to really look at the world around him. “England opened beneath his feet, and the feeling of freedom, of pushing into the unknown, was so exhilarating he had to smile. He was in a world by himself and nothing could get in the way or ask him to mow the lawn.”

As he walks, he is flooded with memories of his old friendship with Queenie, the slow degradation of the relationship with his wife, being rejected by his son and abandoned by his mother. He starts to look at life in a new way. “He was already different from the man who had set foot from Kingsbridge. … He was beginning again.”

He encounters characters — some eccentric, some greedy, some wonderfully warm and helpful. “He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went.”

Meanwhile, at home, Maureen keeps son David’s room clean, waiting for him to come back. It’s what has occupied her mind since she and Harold have gradually drifted so far apart. But she starts to worry about Harold, realizes that she misses him, and remembers how much she once loved him. For Maureen, when they first met, “it was as if the world only put its lights on when Harold was near.”

And for Harold, even with their estrangement, he can’t imagine himself without Maureen. “To live without her would be like scooping out the vital parts of himself, and he would be no more than a fragile envelope of skin.” As he walks, he changes. As she waits for him at home, his wife changes.

The writing is lovely, as when, after the rain stops, Harold watches the clouds transform: “He couldn’t move. He wanted to witness every change. The light on the land was gold; even his skin was warm with it. At his feet the earth creaked and whispered. The air smelled green and full of beginnings. A soft mist rose, like wisps of smoke.”

This is a story of transformation and redemption, and it’s a comment on our times. But it’s a love story, too. It’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s emotional without getting sentimental. The last scene with Queenie is so exquisite that I cried. As the hospice nurse says, “Maybe it’s what the world needs. A little less sense, and a little more faith.”

I absolutely love this book. Do not miss it.

Now, welcome to the village of Pagford, whose residents are mean, petty and spiteful. In “The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling, one of the members of the Pagford Parish Council has died, and among the shocked residents of the village are several people who want to turn his death into an opportunity to run for his seat on the council.

I won’t bore you by listing the characters — there are scads of them (and it takes up quite a chunk of the 500-page book just introducing them all). Suffice it to say they are of all ages and classes. Major plot points focus on the teens as well as the grown-ups running for the council seat. Others focus on the romantic entanglements — although I would not call them love stories.

The teenagers are pretty disgusting: among them are bullies, liars and cyber-hackers. The adults are no better. Featured story lines involve politics, class warfare and poverty, but also rape, suicide, self-mutilation, prostitution, drug addiction, death, child abuse, betrayal and sex — lots of sex, which is often rather explicit.

Forget that this is the same author who wrote the Harry Potter books. Those stories, even though they deal with “evil,” are uplifting and filled with hope, truth and friendship. There is none of that here. And it’s certainly not for children.

I wouldn’t say it’s dreadful. It’s Rowling, so there are definite story arcs and beautifully intersecting plots, and the characters are all artfully interconnected. But there is no one to love.

I didn’t want to judge the book by the Potter standard. But frankly, if it hadn’t been Rowling’s, I would have stopped reading by about page 50. It offended me. I believe an artist must be responsible for her/his work, and it was she who chose to write children’s books. I’m not saying she shouldn’t write for adults. But the least she could have done is tone down the raunch factor.

If you like high literary quality, close-up studies of the human condition and excellent writing, and you thought the Harry Potter books were just too silly, try this one. It will probably win awards. But if you want a book to make you feel good, take a pass.

Copyright © 2012 by Mary Louise Ruehr.

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