"In war, the first casualty is truth." - Terry Hayes, I Am Pilgrim.
One of my university friends is extremely well-read and we often email back and forth about our latest literary findings. I’m usually quietly impressed by the pace in which he devours lengthy philosophical tomes by exotic authors I’ve never heard of, while I slowly make my way through the Whitcoulls Top 100. We compare topics and make suggestions and recommendations, and it’s a great way to keep in touch - I’m not sure I could ever tire talking about books.
It was during one such conversation that I attempted to describe my feelings towards I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes.
“I can’t decide whether I loved it or hated it!”
To which my friend dutifully replied:
“So which is it Jess, do you love it or hate it? I’m trying to imagine what kind of book could have you teetering on the edge between two such different reactions.”
I’ll attempt to answer this question in this review.
I Am Pilgrim is the first novel by Terry Hayes, who has had an illustrative career as a screenwriter and producer. Movies to his name include Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Mad Max 2: Road Warrior, as well as an extensive list of TV films and mini-series.
You can tell he’s worked in television by his writing style. Like George R.R. Martin, he knows how to pace intrigue and suspense - there’s no doubt I Am Pilgrim is a real page-turner. The subject matter suggests as much: set in the post 9/11 world, this thriller is centred around Pilgrim, a former high-profile intelligence agent who knows too much but has nothing to lose.
Pilgrim is settling into a quiet retirement at the young age of 30-something (his character is shrouded in mystery), when he is urgently assigned to another task - a task that could very well be his last. America is at risk of being sabotaged by the largest bio-terrorism threat in history, and Pilgrim is the only one who might be able to save the country from the brink of destruction. He sets off on a race against the clock to track down the Saracen, a terrorist on the run who might as well be a ghost - he has left nearly no trail.
As Pilgrim tries to save America and the world from the Saracen’s evils, he weaves his way through Turkey and the Middle East, overcoming all odds to inch himself closer and closer to his target, while at the same time working hard to solve another (unrelated) crime involving a murdered billionaire and his young, beautiful wife. Intense, deeply detailed and full of surprises, I Am Pilgrim is no small feat: but is it a touch too much?
I have read very few thrillers, so perhaps my unfamiliarity with the genre is part of the reason why I’m struggling to get my head around I Am Pilgrim. On the one hand, I thought it was wonderfully written, with enough storylines to keep me guessing and reading late into the night. On the other hand, I felt uneasy about the way certain issues were portrayed - no matter how much I enjoyed reading it, a little voice in the back of my mind cautioned that something was amiss.
It was sentences like these that set the alarm bells ringing:
"Given the way the chick was dressed, the last time she had that much pain up her ass she was probably getting paid for it."
"The driver thought I was crazy - but then his religion thinks stoning a woman to death for adultery is reasonable, so I figured we were about even."
After I finished the last page and was no longer chasing the mysterious plot line, I found myself openly wondering: is this book racist and Islamophobic? Which is probably a sign that it is. And this also begs the question - how do you write a novel from the viewpoint of an American intelligence agent about a Muslim terrorist without letting dangerous racial stereotypes enter the picture?
Goodreads user Tony Mac sums up my concerns quite nicely:
“This long and often rambling thriller just left a bad taste in my mouth. There’s no denying that the author has clearly done a lot of research and he has an economical way with words that allows often fragmented narrative to remain essentially readable. But there is still a lack of realism, shoddy plotting and a nasty veneer of racism, xenophobia and right-wing triumphalism that is barely hidden throughout.”
You see what I’m getting at? After trawling through Goodreads, I noticed other people had made similar comments.
Rebecca Hazelton: “If you’d like a book that plays on American political fears and adds in some light sexism and racism, this is the book for you.” Gareth Flynn: “Very poor book. Like it was written by someone who’s world view is formed by watching Fox News.”
Janina: “Unless you are a big fan of Republican anti-terror propaganda and relish in seeing the evil in Muslims, you might want to avoid this book.”
That said, these negative reviews were few and far between - most people have given this book a full five stars and nearly everyone I have spoken to absolutely loved it.
The typical Goodreads review of I Am Pilgrim goes something like this:
Janine Giovanni:“THE best international thriller for years. Just read it!”
Which brings me back to my original question: did I love it or did I hate it?
I think, after working my way through this review and pondering the plot line for a couple of months, that it’s probably safe to say that I loved reading it, but I hated the bad taste it left in my mouth upon completion.
My self-conscious mind cautions: “are you being oversensitive? Everyone loved it. Are you ‘too PC’?” But my gut says no, not at all: there are some seriously problematic undertones in this book, no matter how entertaining and captivating it seems at first glance.
Have you read it? What did you think? Best thriller to hit the shelves in years, or a touch too problematic? I'd love to hear your thoughts.