I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

 

i-am-pilgrim-by-terry-hayes

“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!”

Helpful, Jess.

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.

Synopsis

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?

My thoughts

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.”

And.

“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.

17 thoughts on “I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

  1. Hey Jess,
    Thanks for your honest review. I too was left with the same sentiment after finishing this read.
    My wife just finished it and absolutely loved it, as did a number of my friends. Which left me thinking am I being politically over sensitive…….is that inner voice being a little to serious? The answer is NO, and thanks to your article,I can now see why.
    My all time favourite is Shantaram. An honest thriller……..huge read……was never bored……felt like I was living it ! Wondering what Gregory David Roberts next novel is like?
    Working my way through Cloud Atlas at the moment. Very impressed how varied in style David Mitchell is when he puts pen to paper . Still waiting to see how he connects the time spanned dots!
    Anyway, enjoy your Kiwi Christmas….off to Hahei for me!

    Like

    1. Hi Michael, thanks for your comment. Good to know I’m not the only one that felt this way after reading it! I also love Shantaram – yet to find another book that I can even compare with it. Haven’t tackled Cloud Atlas yet, but it’s definitely on the list. Hope you enjoy your Kiwi Christmas too. Thanks again for reading :)

      Like

  2. I’m glad to read this and know that I am not the only one to feel this way about the book. I did ask myself if I was over-thinking it but I couldn’t finish the book. I tried twice because book club friends whose judgment I trust were raving about it and I didn’t understand how they were not seeing what I was. (disclosure -I am Muslim and questioned whether I was being oversensitive).

    Like

    1. Hi June, thanks for your comment :-) I too was questioning whether I was being over-sensitive – but I think in these cases it’s always best to listen to your intuition. I’m glad you got something out of this review and thanks for reading :-)

      Like

  3. Thanks Jess. I was actually googling to find out whether anybody was having the same feeling about the book after just finding 5-stars reviews on Amazon. I stumbled over the same sentence about the taxi driver that you posted in the articule and was discussing it with some friends of mine. We discussed whether this was an element of chacacterisation of the main character…but in the end he is supposed to be the perfect guy so it must actually be the author talking there. I thought the book was islamphobic on every second page without need. I am not sure I willing to continue reading.

    Like

    1. Hi Chrysania, thanks for your comment :-) I also read through all of the 5-star reviews on Amazon and wondered whether I was making a fuss. You make an interesting point about whether this was part of Pilgrim’s characterisation – I hand’t thought of it that way before. I agree with you though, if he’s meant to bet ‘the perfect guy’, then it seems odd. I read the entire book as I find it hard to leave a book unfinished. I thought some of the storylines had merit, but yes, it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth in the end.

      Like

  4. I am only on page 109 and found your blog by googling ‘I Am Pilgrim Islamophobia’ to see if anyone else felt the same way. I did wonder if it was just supposed to be the narrator’s prejudice showing but something about it is making me feel so uncomfortable I don’t want to keep reading. It’s actually really unpleasant. Both the quotes you mentioned above – particularly the one about the taxi driver – really threw me. I don’t know if I want to finish it to be honest.

    Like

    1. Hi Vanessa, I’m glad you found my blog – when I googled this, there was nothing! As you’ll see from the other comments, we’re not alone in thinking this book carries an unpleasant tone. I finished it (I find it really hard to give up on books) and did enjoy some aspects of it, but if you are finding it really difficult I think it’s probably a good idea to stop. It’s definitely a confronting topic.

      Like

    2. Ha, I beat you in that I’m at page 89 and googled the same thing. I was given the book as a birthday present form a dear friend who thinks I read too much heavy stuff, but am finding it hard to keep reading. It wallows in the depths of our lower nature, this writer is a peddler in stereotypes. If there is progress in society, it’s the kind of book I hope future generations will look at with unfettered scorn.

      Like

    3. Haha. I’m on page 110 and googled »I Am Pilgrim Racist«. It’s almost eerie.

      My first impression of the book was that »OK, this is not great literature but it might be an enjoyable read at least«. But the further I go on it seems like it’s getting deeper and deeper into these xenophobic stereotypes and sexist descriptions. I will try to finish it but following The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma with this, just makes it feel like I tried to satisfy my increased appetite with a bowl of hot chocolate sauce. It’s nice the first spoonfuls but after some time it nauseates you and you still have the majority of the bowl left to eat (and shamefully enough I will probably finish that bowl).

      Like

      1. Haha, I love your chocolate sauce analogy! I finished the book. I find it very hard to stop reading books halfway through (also have the same problem with chocolate!) At least you can see the book for what it is…

        Like

  5. Yep, just finished reading it and agree there were some sweeping statements about Muslims which were way out of line and clearly Islamaphobic, as was the overall tone of the book. A book like this amounts to propaganda and will only widen the distrust between the Muslim world and the West.

    Like

  6. Thanks for the review! It’s honestly such a disappointing book. The complete one-sidedness of the views and straight up sexism isn’t surprising considering the main character (and the author) is a 30 something rich white man. I wouldn’t have minded all that if the book was intelligent but the characters are almost caricatures (America = good honest true /Muslim = oppressed/bomber). The whole thing reads like a wink-wink-nudge-nudge pantomime novel. The author assumes his readers are of the lower IQ range and just can’t keep up with a basic dot to dot. Macho patriotic racism reminiscent of “American Sniper” no?

    Like

    1. Hi Jo, thanks for commenting! Disappointing is a good way to sum it up. I completely agree that it’s not so much the subject matter that put me off, rather the way it was handled. I haven’t read American Sniper yet but it’s on my bookshelf – I’m a little apprehensive now!

      Like

  7. I read the book about 8 months back and loved it, I ran out of books to read and am reading it again, I can’t but notice the racism, islamophobia and American supremacy all through the book.

    While the narrator purportedly admires the saracen and what he has achieved, there seems to be no country that he likes including Germany and Turkey. The jingoism resounds throughout the book and if people are influenced by such books then God save the world.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s