Believe only half the reviews of two recent British imports. Against the odds, the potentially twee first novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry [Kindle], about a newly retired married man in Devon who leaves his house to mail a response to a woman he wronged 20 years prior and instead decides to walk it to her -- 627 miles away -- is smart and funny and sad. Oh, sure, it's blatant entertainment, from a debut author who has written two dozen radio plays and adaptations for the BBC, but if you're in the mood to champion an ordinary lost soul trying to break free from his humdrum life, it's very enjoyable. Wisely, Rachel Joyce sometimes switches the narrative to Harold's wife back home, and gives her aging hiker lots of interactions with younger locals along his route, so the miles don't drag. Readers who speed through the novel for its big twist and backstory will miss the careful crafting of sentences like this, his reassuring goodbye to his wife, "I'm only going to the end of the road." To my mind, that would have made a far better title. Nevertheless, even burdened with this lead-footed title, it's long-listed for the Booker.
Lest you worry that this will be another cozy, painted teacup-view of genteel England: After Harold, who dropped out of high school, learns that his only son will be attending Cambridge, Harold's boss congratulates him with, "All brains and no dick."
After two sky-high brilliant novels, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon drifted too far into the ether with his third novel, The Red House. He gathers eight cliched, stock characters from two halves of an estranged family for a week in the country, and he peppers the narrative with overreaching omniscient passages that sound like awful imitation Woolf. Including two or three pages from the hovering spirit of the fetus one of the characters miscarried eighteen years ago. Somehow, it got stellar reviews in Britain. I wonder if those overworked, underpaid critics accidentally read The Red House Mystery, a charming whodunit by yes that A.A. Milne.