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I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I was doing a book signing at a sensational book store (Petrarch’s in Launceston, Tasmania Australia) when the owner, Peter, and I began to discussing books we love. Apart from me being a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy, our tastes were very similar. We started waxing lyrical about great historical fiction and crime fiction/thrillers. He asked me if I had read, I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes and when I confessed I hadn’t (I hadn’t even heard of it), he insisted I must. He pointed out the book even came with a “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” clause. Well, how could I resist that?

18144124So, I started reading the novel. Written in the first person, it follows the life of, and investigation into, a terrorist plot by a man who has had many identities but in this book is mainly known as “Pilgrim”. Working for a top-secret US government organisation, Pilgrim, a man who has been involved in so many operations and worked all over the world, is forced back from premature retirement to find and halt a lone-wolf terrorist who plans to bring down the USA and its allies in the most diabolical of ways.

Taking the reader all over the world and into the hearts, minds and histories of both “pilgrim” and the lone-wolf, as well as different cultures and countries, the novel is vast in scope and very hard, once you get past the initial set up and what appears to be a red-herring murder in the USA, to put down. Parts of it are very well written, you feel like you are part of the action (Hayes’ screen-writing background is put to good use as the book is very cinematic) and the heart-racing consequences of some of the decisions both the “good” guys and those with nefarious intentions make.

However, it wasn’t always plain-sailing with this book. I have to say I found the main character almost too-perfect – like a James Bond/Jason Bourne and any other action and superhero rolled into one and then on steroids. There didn’t seem to be anything he hadn’t done or couldn’t do and was the “best” at – as an assassin, an investigator, an author (!) (yep), and even about art. Raised by a billionaire philanthropist, apart from a few family issues, the guy doesn’t even have to worry about money. Oh, and he’s really handsome… how do I know? Because he basically tells us – and smart – he tells us that too. Did I mention he’s also a doctor? Yet, there was so much telling rather than showing of all this throughout the novel (a major flaw in the book), Pilgrim came across as a bit of an egotistical prat (who nonetheless could demonstrate empathy for Holocaust survivors, appreciate art, and love kids – and ogle all the beautiful women that pepper the book. Apparently, unattractive or homely women don’t enter Pilgrim’s sphere) rather than the patriotic and ethical guy he apparently is.  Not only that, but when he did act/show, he made really basic mistakes and incorrect assumptions about those he was supposed to be an expert on. I found this tendency to “tell” all the time frustrating because, when Hayes “shows” he’s good at it and it’s mainly in the final stages of a very long book that he does this well.

Another aspect of the novel I struggled with was the portrait of the Islamic world. It was very negative and, frankly, clichéd. It was as if all the Arab characters, with few exceptions, were drawn from reductive and often horrible templates, created post 9/11, to justify invasion, racism, Islamophobia and so much more. I found this quite disheartening. It was very U.S.A “ra ra” (all the men in the White House, including the President, are “good blokes”, while the Turkish, Saudi and other Middle Eastern authorities are a range of negative and often idiotic stereotypes) in so many ways and I can see that it would be the kind of movie a post-Trump America (or at least those who voted for him) might love. I didn’t love the book, but I do understand its appeal – it’s simplicity. It creates a world of black and white, where there are clear-cut goodies and baddies and even when the good guys do bad things, it’s for a greater good. I couldn’t help but think of a line from the movie True Lies, when Jamie Curtis discovers her husband, played by Arnie Schwarzenegger, is a spy. She asks, “Have you killed anyone?” He answers (affected by a truth serum) “Yes. But they were all bad.” This is that kind of book; Pilgrim is that kind of “hero.”

Overall, this is a fast and quite gripping read (despite its length) that would be great for holidays or long plane trips – but be prepared to suspend your disbelief. While I don’t want my money back, it didn’t live up to the hype.

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