I Am Pilgrim is a book that I don’t want to tell you too much about. I picked it up knowing very little other than that it was not my usual sort of read at all – a spy thriller beginning with a gruesome crime scene – but I was assured that I should put all my preconceptions to one side and jump onboard and hang on. And they were right. From the very first to the very last page, I was utterly enthralled by this astonishing novel, a debut, no less. Even more extraordinary is that this is a novel of 700 pages. Normally, such a lengthy book can be quite a commitment to read but I would have happily devoured a book twice its length. In fact, I met the editor at the Crime in the Court event in London on 4 July and he did mention that there had been talk of a ‘Director’s Cut’ – much had been chopped.
So, giving as little away as possible, here are just a few of the reasons why I Am Pilgrim is one of my reads of the year.
I Am Pilgrim is a spy thriller but it is so much more than that. It is driven by the stories of a large number of interlocking, interweaving lives, led by the Pilgrim and the man that has become his mission in life to catch before he wreaks armageddon on the world, the Saracen. Both men are supported by a network of aides, almost all secret, but the trail that leads one man to hunt another is tortured by dead ends, false leads, sacrifice, courage and treachery.
The novel is indeed a pilgrimage, a collection of journeys – there’s the journey that leads the Pilgrim to abandon his identity and take on this quest; there’s the story of the Saracen’s path to international terrorism, no less personally treated; there’s also the journey of the narrator and author – information is fed to us both subjectively and objectively. Glimpses of hindsight add to the sense that we’re not alone on our read. It’s a journey for us too. Beginning at a murder scene, the movement from police procedural and crime fiction to spy thriller to an emotive history of a selection of always fascinating lives, littered with anecdotes, asides and diversions, is extremely accomplished and sophisticated. The intricate plotting is extraordinary. It is also a physical pilgrimage – the novel takes us across oceans and cultures.
I had the impression when I read I Am Pilgrim that each page could hold not just a clue but also a glimpse into another life that I wanted to know more about – the friends, wives, sisters, children, bosses, victims, lovers, colleagues, parents. Along the way, the Pilgrim learns about his own past and this tale is every bit as riveting as the Saracen’s life or, and I doubt I’ll read anything more completely harrowing and moving for a long time, the story of the Pilgrim’s closest colleague. And all the time life goes on, most people unaware of the countdown that drives the Pilgrim and Saracen on, to save or destroy the world.
I Am Pilgrim is thrilling and unputdownable. It is an emotive reading experience. It is indeed genre defying. The journeys that we, the lead characters and the author/narrator are led on are populated by ‘real’ people, obsessed by their own lives, living their own experiences, influenced or merely observed by the Pilgrim and Saracen. It’s a twisty path, covering so many countries, sometimes leading to tears, admiration, horror or to tremendous shocks and revelations. 700 pages might seem long but when I finished I Am Pilgrim I was so sorry to put it down, full of admiration as I was for Terry Hayes and this extraordinary achievement.