Pilgrim: James Jackson
Posted by Frank Burns
When I was an undergraduate student, I remember attending a seminar entitled “The value of 3rd rate fiction”. I wasn’t sure then how such classifications worked in the world of fiction, but there was a sense (almost a snobbish sense) that if a novel proved to be massively popular (what we now call a ‘blockbuster’ or ‘best seller’) there was something intrinsically flawed about it. Using the same arguments, if what you are reading now is a veritable ‘page-turner’ and you can’t put it down until you have finished it, the author must be appealing to the lowest common denominator amongst his/her readership. Now, I am not going to argue for or against this notion, but I do remember Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code preventing me from catching a few hours snooze on a trans-Atlantic flight a few years back. I held him personally responsible for my extended jet-lag over several days!
I am not sure what historians, in general, think of historical fiction, a genre which has become extremely popular in recent years. From my limited experience, some of it is very good, and some…………well, very bad. The popularising of history can, when the writing is good, bring the past alive and give us a vivid insight into significant events, but when the writing is bad, mediocre or sensationalist, you wonder why a publisher ever entertained it for publication. I liken the reading of the latter to a very hungry man who hastily decides to buy himself fish and chips from a nearby van. The smell of the batter and vinegar lures him in, the golden brown of the fry-up makes him salivate, he eats the whole of his serving with relish………then, as he licks the grease from his fingers and wipes the vinegar stains from his chin, he really wishes he had opted for a salad for the sake of his health.
So, is this my verdict after reading Pilgrim by James Jackson? The year is 1212, and the Pope has called for another crusade and some 40,000 children pledged to win back Jerusalem and find the Christians’ most treasured relic, the True Cross, which was lost to the Muslims. The narrative follows the fortunes and misfortunes of this band of children as they make their way to the Holy Land. The narrative has you turning pages almost quicker than you can read them. To satisfy the hunger created by curiosity, you want to find out what happens on the next page, then the next page………..until at the end (as you lick the grease from your fingers and wipe the vinegar stains from your chin), you really feel as if you should have been reading something more challenging and instructive like War and Peace, or I, Claudius, or Don Quixote of la Mancha (the best unread seller in Spain, discounting the Bible). Maybe the fact you didn’t choose any of the latter says something about you or the intrinsic value of the former and, instead of relegating the former to the status of ‘3rd rate fiction’, it should be valued as exactly what it is…………….. an entertaining page-turner.