Terry Hayes’ debut novel, I Am Pilgrim, is a blockbuster spy thriller which shows all the author’s narrative skills as a seasoned screenwriter. Seemingly written with Hollywood in mind, it is highly visual, and has multiple twists and turns to keep even the most reluctant reader riveted to the page (or, in my case, the iPad) until long into the night.
A lengthy 704 pages, the story ranges over settings as diverse as New York, Saudi Arabia, the Hindu Kush and Turkey. It combines an identity-troubled protagonist, reminiscent of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, with comic-book-like action typical of a James Bond movie. (There are probably better contemporary examples, but this isn’t really my genre.)
The narrative is ostensibly told in the first person and jumps forwards and backwards in time, as motivations and back stories are filled out. The premise, a terror threat which could bring down the United States, if not the entire Western World, is alarmist and frightening; and Hayes’ narrative manipulations make the scenario in all its permutations seem – almost – believable. With at times clunky foreshadowing, Hayes never lets the reader forget the magnitude of the imminent threat, and pointed references to genocide, such as the narrator’s quote from an Auschwitz survivor, attempt to give the story an epic quality:
There was one thing the experience had taught him. He said he’d learned that 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.
As well as telling his own story, Hayes’ narrator retells events as if from the points of view of other pivotal characters, including the Muslim terrorist-antagonist. The built-in unreliability of the narrator, in my view, narrowly saves the story from being a crude exploitation of complex political, religious and ideological tensions between the West and radical Islam for entertainment purposes. Narrowly, I say, because the narrator’s unreliability is only hinted at, rather than fully drawn. It could be easy for some – many? most? – readers to accept on face value the narrator’s self-serving account of events, and to regard him as a hero, rather than the flawed, ethically and morally suspect anti-hero I would like to think Hayes intends him to be. (We might have to wait for another book featuring this narrator to judge what Hayes has in mind here.)
Who will enjoy this book? Anyone who likes morally ambiguous, page-turning thrillers. Who might hate it? People who don’t buy my unreliable narrator argument and who can’t bring themselves to switch off their critical facilities long enough to enjoy James Bond.
For me, I couldn’t put it down.