I crave good thrillers. But they are vanishingly rare.
So when I find a book with a compelling plot, rich characters, horrifying jeopardy and seat-edge cliff-hangers, I fall on it like a starving man on a feast.
I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is such a thriller – an epic, breathtaking romp from New York to Afghanistan to Bahrain to Gaza to Bodrum to Bulgaria and back. I really enjoyed it.
Here (no spoilers) are some reasons it works well:
- characterisation: the outstanding feature of the novel. Both the bad guy (“The Saracen”) and the protagonist, the US-trained superspy codenamed “Pilgrim” (both Saracen and Pilgrim can also mean “Nomad”), are richly drawn, with enough back story to fill several novels. This can be irritating: the book is so long that some threads of detail disappear (Pilgrim’s drug habit) or reappear without having been described in the first place (the Saracen’s dead wife). But on the whole the characters, including a host of minor players, gleam like diamonds. This makes you care about them;
- action: the action scenes are thrilling. A firefight in an Afghan village, the ghastly deaths of three hostages, the theft of some medical supplies from a heavily-guarded facility – all will have you on the edge of your seat;
- evil: the consequences with which the world – and specifically the US – will threatened if Pilgrim does not succeed in his mission are both credible and horrific. The potential horror is illustrated early on in the book in microcosm, leaving you praying it will not come about on a bigger scale;
- good: Pilgrim has an unerring moral compass which draws sympathy – a bit like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog). Other characters also have clear moral values. Even “The Saracen” plans his act of evil for reasons which he believes are pure and noble;
- richness: Hayes reaches deep into characters to create insights which enrich and illuminate the book. For example, he creates a Jewish character who has survived the Holocaust and hangs around the Bebelplatz – a memorial to the 1933 book-burning by Nazis in Berlin – to highlight a point: when millions of people, a whole political system, countless numbers of citizens who believed in God, said they were going to kill you – just listen to them. Later, Pilgrim inspires a cynical musician who has lost his mojo to resume his musical career – just in passing. The book is full of warm, fascinating detail;
- I am Pilgrim contains some fine epigrams. I liked Evidence is the name we give to what we have, but what about the things we haven’t found? and If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go;
- The structure of the book is outstanding. Hints from opening chapters flower into relevance hundreds of pages later. For example Pilgrim’s early hatred of the practice of torture by “waterboarding” sets the scene for it to be used later. The early love of an anonymous Geneva banker for his family becomes a key to the resolution;
- The book is rich in cliff-hangers, especially from the mid-way on. You really, really want to know what will happen next.
Another thriller – described by Edmund de Waal as “utterly gripping”
I am Pilgrim is not perfect. The narrative is politically incorrect to a degree verging on parody, as Pilgrim and other supposedly sympathetic characters casually dismiss the qualities of one race of people after another – Serbs, Albanians, Russians, Japanese, and Arabs just to start with. The assumption that a top female Turkish police officer would be incapable of firing a pistol accurately betrays either startling sexism or a lack of understanding of the trigger-happy nature of the Turkish police. And the Afghan sequences of the book have weak patches, occasionally sinking almost to Shantaram-esque levels of boilerplate.
On the whole, though, these are minor quibbles set against the strength of the narrative; and one may debate to what extent thrillers should attempt political correctness. If you like a good blockbuster thriller, try I am Pilgrim.
For: full-on entertainment in a satisfying, high-stakes narrative populated with well-drawn characters.
Against: a bit long in places.
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