I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
This is essentially a story about 9/11, its aftermath and the on-going war against terrorism. The story is based in the USA, though there is plenty of travel to countries such as Afghanistan, Turkey, Greece and Libya. We follow the lives of two men.
The first is Pilgrim, who is a secret agent for a division of the American secret service few have heard of. He’s a master of his craft and an expert in the investigation of crime scenes. The second man we follow is the Saracen.
The book is made of four parts and pretty much the first three parts are background and set-up to the main story which arrives in part four.
In the first three parts, we learn about Pilgrim – his childhood, his foster parents, his life as an agent and his rise to fame amongst the ranks of agents, his doubts and fatigue at the relentless pace of his job. We learn about Saracen – his childhood and his hatred of the Saudi royal family and of America, his recruitment and years spent fighting in Afghanistan against the Russians, his one-man, demonic plot against the US homeland and his determination to see this succeed. There are some horrific scenes of torture and violence that the reader witnesses.
Some people might find the hundreds of pages of backstory and detail difficult to get through.
I liked finding out about these two men and the forces which shaped them. They are both intensely human and we get to know their thoughts and see inside their minds. It’s not always comfortable, but it was always interesting, maybe even riveting.
Part four is where the story really kicks off and all the many threads of the previous three sections come into play. People that Pilgrim and the Saracen have met have an influence on the final acts in the book as the tension mounts. Memories and tiny incidents which we know about (but Pilgrim and Saracen may have dismissed) take their place to try to tip the hand of fate one way or the other. This was well done. I always admire an author who gives attention to detail and Hayes is good at this.
Given that the big overview of the story is 9/11, its aftermath and the war against terrorism in the USA – of course, the story has a main path to follow. Of course, Pilgrim is the hero. At the end, he’s practically a super-man and close to death, he speaks to the President of the United States and is called ‘a hero’. We also get to know a real hero of 9/11 in the character of Ben Bradley. Ben is a NYPD cop who befriends Pilgrim (and inspires him) and I enjoyed reading about Ben and his wife.
Xenophobia, racism and constant negative commentary
My main problem with this book was the constant racism/xenophobia/negativity about numerous cultures and people of the world. All except the Americans. (Actually, in one incident an Australian UN unit also gets some praise, but, oh yes, Hayes is from Australia isn’t he?)
Whether it’s the Turkish people, the Greeks, the Afghans, the Persian empire, the Syrians, the Libyans – you name it and Pilgrim has some negative or snide or suspect comments to make.
Often these are tiny and conversational and part of his internal dialogue as he assesses situations and intelligence assignments. They could go unnoticed, I suppose, because they are not at all the main meat of the book. Rather, they are its constant and unpleasant undercurrent.
At first, I clocked Pilgrim’s little asides and ignored them. But as they added up, it was like the dripping of a tap – Pilgrim just couldn’t resist drawing us into his xenophobic world. In the end, after some six hundred pages of it, I’m sorry to say I couldn’t stand it any longer.
Of all the books I’ve read in the last few years, I’ve not come across this problem before.
I understand that many won’t share this opinion and I want to be clear that I’m not talking about the big story of Pilgrim versus Saracen. I’m talking about the internal values and dialogue of Pilgrim, for instance when he walks into a Turkish village and assesses his surroundings, or arrives at a crime scene and thinks something about the personnel working the case. What a shame.
It totally spoiled what could have been an excellent book.
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