With so many thousands of novels published each year is there any such thing as a completely new idea for a plot anymore? The quest story has been a literary staple for centuries but if I hadn't read 2004 novel The Memory Of Running by Rod McLarty then I might have thought the premise of the new book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday, $36.99) had an entirely original twist on it. Trouble is, the parallels between the two are too obvious to ignore.
In the first book an overweight man is spurred by tragedy to ride his bicycle across America, meeting all sorts of interesting characters along the way and undergoing a personal redemption.
Joyce's more recent novel transplants the action to England. In The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry a recently retired brewery worker heads out to post a letter to a dying friend and, on impulse, keeps walking the hundreds of miles to her bedside, meeting a host of interesting characters along the way and trying to come to terms with his life and the man he has become.
Harold is ill equipped for such a journey. He is unfit, has no map or change of clothes, is wearing boat shoes and yet, turning his back on the dull unhappiness of his home life with wife Maureen, he keeps on walking. At first he is exhilarated, his eyes open for the first time to the beauty of the English countryside. His thoughts begin to return to his childhood, and he meditates on the difficulties of being a father to his son, David. He talks to strangers. Often they are kind to him in return. He gets blisters, becomes tired, sore and discouraged. But he keeps walking towards his dying former colleague, Queenie Hennessy, hoping his faith will save her.
Then Harold's story is reported in the local paper, his walk becomes a media circus with other people joining in, slowing it down and threatening to take over.
By the time I'd finished I'd stopped making comparisons with The Memory Of Running. I guess it may have been what inspired Joyce, but her story is so authentic and heartfelt, her characters so finely and lovingly drawn, the tone so gentle and dignified, this is no cynical copy - it can't be. Joyce has said the novel began life as a radio play she wrote for her father when he was dying of cancer, which explains its depth of emotion.
It's a story about loss and letting go, about hope and second chances, about the things that people say to one another and the things they don't. It's tender, poignant, sad at times, funny at others. If the central idea is not completely original does that actually matter?
I'd advise reading both books, because what they have in common besides their plot parallels is the power to captivate readers and win hearts. Oh, and they're brilliant stories. And really what more can you ask for?