Fundamental Flaws – ‘I am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

pilgrimThere are spoilers in this review. Just so you know.

‘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.

Other views are available at: 
Many thanks to Bantam Press for sending me a copy to review. 

27 thoughts on “Fundamental Flaws – ‘I am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

  1. If you start a review saying your review contains spoilers then you’re excluding most people who might think of reading the book and then your review is for people who have already read it and you’re telling them they shouldn’t have read it?

    I really enjoyed I Am Pilgrim, I enjoyed the depth and detain and as I got closer to the end I hoped there would be a second part to it..

    1. I’ve never quite thought of it like that before. I think when reviewing a book negatively it can be hard to justify your view without explaining why, which for thrillers often revolves around a plot point. Having read back through this review, I’m not sure it’s that spoilery after all, so perhaps I didn’t need the warning. Having said that, I would rather err on the side of caution. I’d rather people bypassed the review rather than ruin the book for somebody.

      One final point, the review could be for people who have already read the book. Difference of opinion promotes discussion, and that is potentially interesting.

  2. For a first novel the book was great I think you should write one this good and we can all criticize that.

  3. How about that the final showdown didn’t make sense? I kept thinking he had to withstand the torture until Ben Bradley can make the phone call bec there must be some twist we don’t know yet. But NO! Once Ben calls, pilgrim can reveal all. So please tell me why, during his torture, he can’t stop it my saying “we have your son. Call the Nanny’s cell.”???

  4. I just finished reading the book and this review summarises everything that I didn’t like about it. The plot is so unbelievable, with so many remarkable coincidences, it’s very hard to take it seriously. I kept thinking: what are the odds of event ‘a’ and event ‘b’ being tied together? Even someone who believes in the most far-fetched conspiracy theories would have trouble believing the story. The book is also full of clichés and one dimensional characters. And the “narrative foreshadowing” is every bit as annoying as having some sitting next to you in the cinema telling you that something big is going to happen. Great review.

  5. Totally agree with your comments about the inconsistent POV. Why, oh, why couldn’t he just have stuck with a 3rd person or omniscient POV throughout the whole book? While this seems like a nit, I just kept asking that same question: “How does the narrator _know_ that?”. It totally broke the mood for me whenever it happened. Beyond that, there are a bunch of more forgivable problems, like plot points that are glossed over. (Was it _really_ necessary to travel to Afghanistan, of all places, to test the virus??? Are there that many English speakers in small, seaside Turkish towns?)

    All that said, I enjoyed the main ideas and the level of detail given about the various places, occupations, histories, technology, etc. (Not sure how much of those details were true, but they rang true, anyway.) It could make a thrilling movie…

  6. Im so pleased to have found a review that sums what I thought about this book, everyone else seems to rave about it.
    I also feel like I missed something. Saracen is Saudi Arabian, but he hates the Saudi regime as they beheaded his father, so he decides to attack them by wiping out America. Why didnt he just release the virus in Saudi?
    Also very good point made Dan as to why he didnt just get them to call the nanny and stop the torture.

  7. Robin
    i liked the review and related to a lot of what you said but…I loved the story and the the enjoyment of good stories is why I read.
    I judge a book by how in keeps me engaged and to some extent how it detaches me from the stresses and strains of working life. Not by the intricacies of the literary tools that the writer uses.
    I think that you were harsh. The book is engaing, fresh and enjoyable.
    You do however write a great review-but then again so does AA Gill and I never agree with him either.


    1. Thanks Jim! I’m glad you liked the review even if you didn’t agree with it. I never thought this review would get so much traffic. I completely take your point, but too many things in this book pulled me out of the story, most particularly the point of view. As a result I could never fully sink myself into it. Take this in contrast to The Martian, which I’ve just reviewed, that was deeply immersive and nothing broke me from it.

      My next read (review posted soon) had a few things in it that I didn’t quite think would work how they author said they would, but whilst they nagged they didn’t completely pull me out from what I was reading. The overreaching story arc didn’t suffer. But in Pilgrim my continual thought of ‘but you couldn’t possibly know that’ ruined the book.

      It’s also true to say that I didn’t notice so many of the flaws whilst reading, because I was caught up in the story. Most of my reviews here are positive, so I hope I’m not too much like AA Gill. Every now and again though I find a book I don’t like, and sometimes they can be the most fun to review!

  8. I am eighty years old and I read books for enjoyment and entertainment. I Am Pilgrim gave me both in large measure. Enough of you gibberish as to technicalities and all the rest. I found this book a joy and a treasure and I am sorry it had to end! I wish I could thank Terry Hayes for the great ride!

    1. Hi Kay, Thanks for taking the time to comment. Whilst I can’t agree with you (especially about the gibberish!). I am glad you took more out of the book than I did. One of the best things about books is that they mean something different to just about every reader.

      I hope I’m still reading at 80 and challenging upstarts on the internet too!

  9. I actually stopped reading this book half way through, I was so annoyed by the 1-dimensional characters, and odd and often jarring narrative. The first major plot hole I spotted – Pilgrim hypothesises that the woman worked in the world trade centre, and used the 9/11 catastrophe as the perfect alibi. Everyone would think she was dead. If that was the case then she would have been a real name on a list of missing people from the major incident. I thought that list would have been the first place they would start looking, but seemingly no… So infuriating.

  10. I greatly enjoyed reading the book but there a mistakes that could have been picked up by a careful read by the editor or somebody else. Examples:
    The search for the Saracen hinges entirely on that satellite phone conversation with his sister which he has after getting an email/chat alert from her. However, satellite phones (type Thuraya) did not provide access to email at the time the story is set – there would not have been any other possibility for him to access email/internet in remote Afghanistan. So the only credible way to contact him would be for his sister to call him directly on the satellite phone.
    There is smaller stuff in the medical descriptions that were not credible: I am not a microbiologist but seeing a mutation of a virus under the electron microscope can’t be possible. He often talks about fever setting in right after a dirty injury – this is not true, it takes hours to days. And after having multiple bones crushed in his feet at the end, it seems a) unreasonable that a smart person like Pilgrim would not seek better surgical care and b) that he would be able to walk on the foot with 1-2 months if at all (even with the probably needed multiple surgeries it likely would have taken far longer).
    There are small, avoidable mistakes such as the Saracen’s sister talking to his brother in Turkish from the boat – when it is explicitly said later that he does not speak Turkish…

    1. I found it absurdly long with cliché piled upon cliché. I never quite understood exactly why it all boiled down to Pilgrim to save the day. Surely a biological threat would be covered by relevant specialists seeking to prevent its entry into the country while Pilgrim tracked the perpetrator. Food. Agriculture. People. Medicinal supplies. Is no one actively stepping up surveillance of these? And Pilgrim’s insistence on delaying the President closing the borders was actually a ridiculous risk.

      Meanwhile, what a surprise that the protagonist is fabulously wealthy, privileged, mysterious, a personable loner with a heart of gold but magnificently intelligent and deadly. Not a single flaw. No weaknesses at all apparently. Hard to relate to someone so utterly unconvincing.

      And yes the foreshadowing technique was painfully clumsy. Oh and what’s with the lame vode names? Rider of the Blue? The Whisperer? Just painful.

      This book was painful. Amazed it got such praise.

      1. Superb assessment. If only the book itself were so well written. And all the laughably fantastic forensic ‘science’: images from old mirrors? Seriously?

        Gravels crunch. Hearts leap into throats. Boobs strain against tight blouses. There are sharp intakes of breath. Women are achingly beautiful. Smart too.

        It’s a 912 page cliche-fest.

  11. I’m about half way through this book and I don’t know whether to give up or not. I’m kind of intrigued but mostly annoyed. Both male leads come across as smug and there are so many inaccuracies. Aargh!

  12. Enjoyed the read in the sun, by the pool, with a drink. Saved buying too many other holiday books. Would write more, but still trying to get both hands deep into my pockets while carrying a picnic basket!

  13. Totally agree with this review,the main thing that ruined the book for me was that all the way through it I was thinking “so we’re supposed to believe that the east side inn murderer has a connection to Bodrum,and the Saracens sister made the call from bodrum and now there is another murder in bodrum which gives pilgrim the perfect alibi to go there ,but yet there is no connection between the Saracens sister and Ingrid kohl??” They just all happen to be in this small Turkish town coincidentally?i figured at some point there was going to be a plot twist tying it all together but no ?!

  14. Firstly I would like to say that I am at page 100 something. The next comment is about factual mistakes. The book is well written, but the fact that it’s based on a lot of historical facts, makes me wander why the author do not check the easiest of things, like cars. On page 80 in the Norwegian edition, he rents a Porsche Cayenne Turbo in Berlin. This is about one month after 9/11. Let us say in November of 2001. The Porsche Cayenne Turbo was not lauched in Europe before March/April 2003. Sorry, but this ruins the hole book for me. Hayes is good(and of course a rich man by now), but he is not a great researcher.

    1. Haha, that’s a great catch and as a car guy I appreciate it! I just stopped reading this book because of all the gibberish about Saudi Arabia in it. I actually grew up in the city of Jeddah that is apparently Saracen’s hometown and frankly Terry Hayes’ description of the city and country lack much of a connection to reality. I’m sure he did some of his research quite well but a lot of the religious restrictions he mentions were simply not the case (although of a course a lot were and I’m glad I got out of there!). Smacks a little bit of Islamophobia but I guess any novel about Islamic terrorism might stray into that territory.

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