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An easy enough read if you don't mind turning off your brain for 800-odd pages
on 18 December 2014
I am Pilgrim has been touted as the epitome of the thriller genre since its release last year. Written by Terry Hayes, a former Hollywood scriptwriter, it follows Pilgrim, the once leader of a deep-cover US agency, as he attempts to discover a normal life outside of the 'secret world'. Dragged back into the mucky business after involving himself with a nasty murder at the bequest of his policeman friend, Ben Bradley, we follow him all over the world (but mostly to Turkey) as he attempts to unravel the plot of the creation and dissemination of a potentially apocalyptic smallpox virus by an Islamic fundamentalist.
You will immediately realise that Hayes has worked on big budget Hollywood movies as his novel reads just like a film script ideally suited for, say, a Tom Cruise type actor. His writing style is straightforward, his descriptions sparse on metaphor, simile and analogy. He reminds me of Matthew Reilly (a guilty pleasure of mine) in that his prose is engagingly simple whilst being largely unrealistic. Hayes' evident research for the novel is admirable as he comprehensively covers a number of obscure procedures and tasks I'd barely even heard of. I am Pilgrim is the ultimate disengage-your-brain novel and, as long as you like to spend lots of time on the beach - the book weighs in at some 890 pages - would make perfect holiday reading material. Fortunately the book's chapters are mostly short and easily digestible, allowing the reader the opportunity to read in short bursts if so required. I'd say overall I mostly enjoyed the novel but there were a great number of things throughout the book that bothered me and decreased my enjoyment and eventual rating.
I'll start with Pilgrim himself. Hayes attempts to paint him as a wholesome and endearing hero but I found him irritating pretty much from the off. He is caring towards a disabled child at one moment and executing a father-of-two with extreme prejudice the next. He claims not to be boastful and then proceeds to boasts about his appearance and abilities throughout the entire novel. He is the adopted child of a multi-billionaire couple to whom he showed little compassion and the regret of this plays on his mind at every opportunity. In my opinion he comes across as a poorer and more obnoxious version of Bruce Wayne.
Pilgrim wishes to escape from the 'secret world' yet proceeds to make some pretty inexplicable decisions that only serve to bring his existence to the eye of the public and any watchful foes. He writes a book under an (obviously flimsy as Bradley uncovers him with only the help of his wife) alias and attends a conference against his better judgement during which he is discovered by just the kind of people he has been attempting to avoid. Not exactly the brightest moves for a seasoned deep-cover operative to undertake, I should imagine.
Pilgrim's aptitude for his job as the world's most accomplished elite agent is constantly drawn into question. For someone supposedly at the top of their game Pilgrim comes across as hopelessly inept. He is constantly making mistakes, misjudging situations, and flagrantly ignoring protocol. There are a great many chapters to this book and the majority of them end with Pilgrim admitting to making a mistake. He repeatedly comes across as unobservant and inattentive in critical situations and, for the most part, any breakthrough he discovers falls over-conveniently into his lap, owing more to luck than any skill or feat of astounding detective work. I'm aware that the novel would be much less exciting if Pilgrim was absolutely accomplished in his role, but his constant lack of attention and major oversights quickly began to grate on me and made his unlikely back story and rise through the ranks (incidentally his quick-fire promotion to Rider of the Blue reads like he was awarded the job solely for having an itchy trigger finger) even less convincing.
I feel Hayes also allows his own personal political views to shine through his writing. He is often dismissive of the cultures and beliefs of foreigners and there are varying levels of unnecessary xenophobia. The most glaring instances of this involve Pilgrim mentally dismissing a taxi driver as a woman-stoning mentalist just for looking at him unusually and a totally needless summarising of the Japanese people based on the actions of their forefathers during the Second World War. The US, however, seems to escape any criticism and there is plenty of American jingoism included within the novel which I found odd as the author is of English/Australian descent. Perhaps he has spent too much time living in Hollywood...
The story is told from a first person perspective but often Hayes drifts into third person accidentally. Pilgrim also has a strange omniscience which allows him to explain every last detail of situations, intel and incidents at which he had not been present and as such should have no way of knowing about. I found this change of voice and otherworldly ability rather jarring and, unfortunately, they become more prevalent as the story went on.
There are possible spoilers ahead as I feel I must talk a little about the ending of the book. Look away from this paragraph now if you do not wish to uncover snippets from the conclusion of the story! Many people find the ending of I am Pilgrim to be disappointing. I actually thought it to read rather well and it rounded off the tale in decent fashion. I do, however, acknowledge that the ploy used to stop the Saracen's plan in its tracks was pretty weak. Would our bad guy give up his entire life's work to prevent a single death when the promise of paradise was awaiting on the other side? His ultimate decision becomes even more unlikely when you consider the smallpox virus he himself synthesised was likely to do just the job Pilgrim was threatening at the finale.
Despite the negatives I've went into above (and I know they appear to be many) I still enjoyed the book for the most part. Despite being a huge tome I proceeded through the numerous pages at quite a speed and found, as mentioned in some other reviews, the story strangely addictive. The book, despite annoying me at times, never felt like a chore and I never found myself dreading picking it up to read (I have to finish any book I start, a curse that I bear with great frustration). It works well as a thriller for the most part but I found Pilgrim's many flaws and questionable attitude dampened my enjoyment somewhat as I couldn't fully cheer on the protagonist. If you like big budget, pro-US action flicks and don't mind turning off your brain for 800-odd pages of often clumsy espionage thriller then I am Pilgrim is worth reading.