The idea behind the Big Read is for everyone at St George’s to come together over a shared reading experience. This year The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was chosen and every first-year student receives their own SGUL copy of the book.
The Big Read project centres around making students, returning or brand-new to St George’s, feel welcome. It will help those of you who are feeling slightly nervous about being in a whole new environment, possibly away from home for the very first time and meeting lots of new people. As everyone takes part in this big book club, you have a conversation starter ready-made.
This year marks the first time St George’s University has its very own Big Read Project and to celebrate the occasion, Library staff have got together to discuss Harold’s pilgrimage over a cup of tea and a biscuit (or two). We had a lively discussion about Joyce’s novel and as in any good book club, we found that we all had slightly (or very) different opinions on the protagonists and key themes.
Below you can read our (spoiler-free) thoughts on the novel.
Beth, Liaison Support Librarian (IMBE)
It’s easy to see why The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was picked for this year’s Big Read title: it’s packed full of big topics that readers from all backgrounds will be able to relate to in some way. As the plot unfolds, it tackles (among many others) themes of grief and loss, loneliness, kindness, addiction and friendship. It’s an enjoyable easy read too, despite some difficult subject matter, as we accompany Harold on his pilgrimage across the UK. When I originally sat down to gather my thoughts for this post, I found myself wondering whether this had quite as profound an impact on me as previous Big Read selections. However, I was forced to re-examine that opinion after getting involved with our staff book group – this is certainly a story that deserves some unpacking and discussion. I’ve found myself revisiting and reappraising the way in which this book tackles these big issues and actually, it appears it’s definitely left its mark.
Anne, Liaison Support Librarian (Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education)
The themes in Harold Fry are universal to the human experience and include loss, regret, dysfunctional relationships and ageing. However, for me the power of the narrative lies in the portrayal of seemingly more minor topics, such as the importance of spending time outside in nature, mindfulness, and connecting with others regardless of how different they are from us. Along with Harold, the reader learns, or rather is reminded, that we are all unique and yet the same. We are often struggling with very similar problems, but ordinary human life is also full of wonders and human connection, which are always around us if we take a minute to appreciate them.
While the book unquestionably addresses really big topics, and can be emotionally challenging at times, it is a real page-turner.
Jenni, Research Publications Assistant
I thought that the portrayal of the beginning of Harold’s pilgrimage was very effective: he increases the length of his journey to post his letter by increments, unable to truly admit to himself that he doesn’t want to return to the home that represents his emotional stagnation, and once the idea of the pilgrimage occurs to him, giving him the excuse to keep going, he seizes on it. His inability to think about the practical reality of his pilgrimage, or to make any active plans other than to continue it, worked well as a mirror for his inability to entirely face his own emotions and past all in one go: like his pilgrimage, he has to tackle it piece by piece, at an angle, without admitting that’s what he’s doing until he’s already doing it
Dan, Information Assistant
I enjoyed Rachel Joyce’s book. There are many themes running through like isolation, grief and loneliness. However, my favourite chapter in the book is when Harold on his pilgrimage meets with Martina a qualified Doctor from another country and although she has problems of her own to address she nonetheless dresses his wounds from excessive walking and takes care of him for a few days when he clearly is exhausted. It highlights one of the major themes in the book which is the unexpected kindness of strangers when you most need it.
Michelle, Research Data Manager, had a different take on the novel
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an inspiring book about illness, suffering and loss, and how these expressions of human existence transcend the various skins that hold them. Unfortunately, for a book about the fragility of skin and the universality of the human condition, Harold is hard to relate to. Harold is of a particular time and place and even as he challenges his own lens he is caught within them, making this a conflicting read at times.
At the end of the Library’s own book club, we couldn’t agree whether the protagonists have more to celebrate than to mourn or whether Harold’s journey has a “happy end” or not, so get reading today and join the discussion on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter today.
Previous years’ books
Organised since 2015, Big Read has been growing every year. In 2018, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine was picked, which proved very popular with Library staff. This and previous years’ short-listed titles are available on loan from the Library, as well as all the winning titles of course. You can read our thoughts on the books from previous years by clicking on The Big Read tag.
Current students and SGUL staff can pick up a copy of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry from the help desk in the Library.
Join us on 6th November for the Big Read Author talk at St George’s where Rachel Joyce will speak about her book and signs your copy! Find out more here. Booking is essential!