‘I am Pilgrim’ is a book that’s about 350 pages too long. Currently clocking in at around 700, chopping it in half would leave scope for a good story, but remove the arresting but far from essential window dressing. There are some good things about this book but I found it fatally flawed.
A caveat before I explain why. ‘I am Pilgrim’ wasn’t quite what I expected. The central story revolves around a member of the USA secret service hunting a lone terrorist hell-bent on releasing a lethal variant of the smallpox vaccine in mainland America. From the marketing of my proof copy, and a few things implied in the opening chapters, I had thought the novel would attempt to deal with the aftermath of an all-out biological attack.
This would have been an interesting direction to take. Hunting the perpetrator, whilst the full horror of his crime continued to unwind. Alas no. This turns out to be a simple ‘can we catch the villain before his dastardly plan can be put into action?’ read. In fairness, it’s not quite that simple. There’s some interesting parallels between Saracen, a shadowy agent with multiple identities who will stop at nothing to ensure his mission is completed and Pilgrim, a shadowy agent with multiple identities who will stop at nothing to ensure his mission is completed.
The novel hinges on one vital difference between the two men. A difference that reminds us that sometimes the gatekeepers are at least as monstrous as the monsters they’re meant to keep out.
Now the problems. Where to start?
My biggest bugbear is the point-of-view. It probably has a technical name, first-person omniscient past-tense or something, but it feels all over the place. The novel is narrated by Pilgrim (though he’s not called that until late into the novel). The sections that detail the stuff he does directly are fine, but when he talks about Saracen’s (and other character’s) movements, I am less convinced.
Sometimes Pilgrim says he pieced together what happened from conversations and transcripts, but mostly he reports action and dialogue he had no way of substantiating. It’s all very exciting, but how does he know? By the end of the novel, it felt like there were two points of view, but only one narrative voice. Since that voice belonged to one of the PoVs, it just doesn’t work.
Next, use of narrative foreshadowing. This is a lazy way of generating tension; ending a chapter with something like ‘We should have known better’, or ‘I would regret that mistake’. The author uses this device to the tell reader that has Pilgrim missed something important time and again, and it’s boring. Terry Hayes was originally a scriptwriter, so this approach is baffling. It’s one narrative trick you can’t really use in a film. It’s the literary equivalent of having the person next to you at the cinema, tap you on the arm, and say ‘Oooh he’s got that wrong.’
There is a murder sub-plot in the book, which is interesting, but belongs in another book. It gives Pilgrim an excuse to go where he wants to go, but throws up so many coincidences, it’s almost impossible to credit. Then there is backstory. There’s loads of it. Pointless details about old cases, which are quite nice to read but basically have bugger-all to do with the story.
You could argue that it’s all part of character development, but as the man is essentially Bruce Wayne, it’s an argument that carries little weight. The adopted son of billionaires, but now orphaned, Pilgrim uses secret identities to fight crime. He doesn’t mind crossing boundaries to get the job done and happens to be brilliant at fighting. All that’s missing are some pointy ears and a pimped up car.
Finally, the writing style. It’s of a type. Thriller writing needs pace injected and that’s fine, but this needed a much tighter edit. Any book that contains the line ‘she has a good mind and an even more attractive face’ needs more than a spit and polish.
As I’ve written this review I discover that I took a much greater dislike to it than I’d realised. The central story and the murder sub-plot are strong, but they don’t sit well together. There are some exciting moments and some great set pieces, but the book is far too flabby. Apparently, it has been cut heavily already. Next time I suggest a literary gastric band.