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Thursday, 8 May 2014

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

One of the pitfalls of reading on an e-reader I've found it that it's easy to start a book without realising how long it is and what you might be getting yourself into. That's what happened to me recently when I fancied rushing through a no-brainer, easy thriller that wouldn't be too taxing on the grey cells. My eyes scrolled down the long list of titles on the Kindle and settled upon I Am Pilgrim. Perfect, no? A fast-paced tale of espionage should prove the perfect escapism? But after realising it was taking ages for the percentage points to add up as I read, I checked the page count...703...that'll explain it then. It turned out to be much meatier than expected.

He goes by many names, but Pilgrim will do. One of the most highly skilled spies the USA has ever known, he has travelled the world, plotted, double-crossed and killed for his country and now finds himself retired before the age of 40, having used his experiences to quite literally write THE book on criminal investigation. Retired, that is, until he hears from an old friend that a murder has been committed in a seedy New York City hotel. But this is not an everyday case. The murderer seems to have used every trick in Pilgrim's own textbook to cover up their tracks.

What follows is an epic sprint across continents whereby Pilgrim uses every trick in his arsenal not only to get to the bottom of the NYC murder but also, y'know, to save the entire world from a catastrophic biological terrorist threat. The plot is multifaceted and will make you think far more widely around events than your average spy story does. What makes a man give up any semblance of a normal life to dedicate himself to go undercover in defence of his country? What makes a child from a conventional background grow up to plot extreme acts of violence on an international scale? How exactly could one man in the Middle East orchestrate a plan to breach the insurmountable defences of United States security forces? It's fast-paced, dramatic, and chilling as you consider how the events described might well be possible in reality.

While the plot is undeniably gripping and complex, this novel is by no means flawless. The whole thing could have been a little bit tighter and more polished, and yes, slightly shorter. The timeline of events in relation to September 11th, 2001, was very muddled and confusing. And I encountered one too many silly errors and poorly-researched facts for my liking. For example, referring to Turkey as 'the Far East', or telling us that one of Pilgrim's injuries resulted in a bone that was 'fractured, but not broken'. The devil's in the details and this kind of mistake really should get picked up during the editing process.

I also think it's worth mentioning that the book has an incredibly patriotic slant which can be heavy-handed at times. Every single foreigner in the book (and not only the Middle Eastern ones) is portrayed as corrupt, stupid, or both. I ultimately found this to wear a little thin.

I've read a few books recently that have made me think "sure, this is great, it's exciting and dramatic, but I bet it would be amazing as a movie". I had the exact same feeling after finishing I Am Pilgrim, only this time I'm thinking: "Terry Hayes is a screenwriter...why didn't he just write a movie?". I can't help but wonder if that medium would have gone further to really do justice to the plot. I did enjoy the overall experience of reading it, but the writing didn't hold up to too much scrutiny. In any case, this is a solid and fast-paced spy thriller that would be a welcome addition to anybody's beach bag if you're after something that will sweep you away without requiring too much concentration.

I received a copy of I Am Pilgrim for review from the team at Transworld Books via Netgalley.


  1. Nice review, Marie. I read some, skimmed some because I hope to read this sometime this year. I am holding off for a hard copy (coming out here May 27) because of the length. I don't enjoy reading very long books in ebook format. A 703 page book is not my first choice, but this one I am going to tackle.

    1. It's a long read, but an easy read. As 700-page books go, this probably won't take you too long to get through.

    2. I did finish the book a few days ago and I enjoyed it immensely. I read the US hardback with 604 pages. Still very long, but I did not find the length too trying. I did not notice the flaws you pointed out; not disagreeing at all, I was just engaged enough in the story so that I did not notice. A lot of the story -- especially the ending -- was probably unrealistic, but I expect that in a lot of spy fiction.

  2. Interesting review. I *loved* this book but I agree that it wasn't flawless. But my favourite read last year.

  3. Speaking about flaws. Why is it so clear yhat the dead girl in the bath tub is not the girl living there who brought home the killer. It is not that anyone can recognise her. I just started this book but i don't get it