Date finished: 7th Jan 2016
If you want to write a novel that’s 890 pages long you really have to know what you’re doing. You run a very real risk of creating a bloated, self-indulgent and insipid work that becomes a frightful effort for the reader to endure. Every sentence, every word, every letter has to count in a novel, and if you fail to do that you’ll flop.
It’s no wonder then that Terry Hayes debut novel I Am Pilgrim has proved such a lauded thriller. Hayes doesn’t mince words: every lexis counts, and it makes for a fantastic and nail-biting thriller.
The plot focuses on a young spy in the post 9/11 era: a world of corruption, espionage and the ever-present threat of terrorism. A terrible and nigh-unsolvable murder has been perpetrated at a dingy New York hotel. Meanwhile, a man of many names (but let’s call him Scott Murdoch) is trying to escape his past life in Paris. Unfortunately, he’s tracked down by Ben Bradley, a remarkable NY cop who enlists his help in the murder case. Meanwhile, a lifetime of work in the Middle East is coming to fruition for a man known as the Saracen. After years of patient training, research and planning, this untraceable, unknown man is ready to unleash a devastating terrorist attack against the West. Once the US catch wind of what’s happening they call in Scott because he’s the only man who can save the day…
Many thrillers stick to the bare-bones: “this is what’s at stake, this is our hero, let the record play”. Hayes flouts this convention and really delves into the history and development of his characters. We learn the family life, training, high and low points of our protagonist and antagonist who feel like two sides of the same coin. Every chapter plays party to a new revelation in a character’s past or a new twist in the plot. Nothing is wasted and the sense of tension that Hayes creates is key to propelling the reader through this enormous yet utterly gripping novel.
It’s an intelligent thriller too; this isn’t an all-guns-blazing Lee Child style story: it’s a sprawling and well-researched tale of espionage that spans many continents, contains a network of intersecting sub-plots, and addresses many wildly differing areas of expertise. Within what one would expect to be a cut-and-dried story about a terrorist attack, Hayes finds room to pay reverence to topics as diverse as fine art, the Holocaust, applied genetics and sailing. And not a single word of it feels unnecessary.
At times the events can border on the ridiculous, but if you can’t suspend a bit of disbelief at the occasionally silly levels of good luck the protagonist and antagonist experience, it’s your loss and your loss only.
All told, Hayes’ debut is an expertly-crafted, visual, terrifying tome that taps into a very real, modern fear and explores it in a way that is both entertaining, disturbing and captivating. This is the kind of book that will ruin your sleeping pattern for a week or so, but it’s also the kind of book that will ensure you don’t notice or, for that matter, care.