OFF THE BOOKSHELF: Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’

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I’m a fairly quick reader and even as a kid, there were times I’d pick out a book purely for its extraordinary length. A well-written epic is an experience like riding one of those escalator walkways at the airport. You get onto it, enjoy the smooth journey and then before you know it you’re at the end, trying to get off without falling flat on your face from the unexpected speed. ‘The Passage’ certainly has all of the facets of an epic with an unsettling realism that makes time slip away very quickly as you read.

“And then she knew, knew it for a fact. They were in danger, terrible danger. Something was coming. She didn’t know what. Some dark force had come loose in the world, and it was sweeping towards them, coming for them all.”

Cronin is a professor of English and clearly a master craftsman of the ‘journey’ form of writing. ‘The Passage’ begins with the backstory of a little girl named Amy, whose single mother leaves her at a convent after murdering a man. Sister Lacey takes it as her charge from God to protect the mysterious and friendless little girl. It then jumps to the emails from a man on a research project in the middle of a jungle, who not only encounters a strange interest from the military in his project but is suddenly put into an extremely dangerous situation that not many of his research party survive. Again, the story then catapults the reader into the lives of Agents Doyle and Wolgast of the F.B.I. who are given instructions to bring several death row inmates to a remote testing facility, where it is revealed that they will spend their lives being human guinea pigs for a viral vaccine that the fatal research project has left as a lasting legacy into medical examination. Wolgast and Doyle are also charged with the job of delivering the six-year-old Amy as a new test subject for this facility – a task Wolgast in particular finds does not sit well with his conscience.

Without giving away too much more of the storyline, which trails and twists and turns in all sorts of directions, jumping forward and backward through time as it wills, the resulting breakout of the virus from this facility transforms America into a post-apocalyptic world battling creatures reminiscent of vampires for survival. Little Amy becomes frightfully important to the survivors many years later, as she holds the key to answers the human race desperately needs.

So then, what is this book like? Well, creepy to begin with. Cronin is extremely gifted at revealing tiny pieces of the plot to you one morsel at a time – enough to keep the ball rolling but in small fragments that leave you wanting more. It’s word heavy; I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who wasn’t keen on a hearty novel and wasn’t willing to invest some serious time in it. But dear lord, some of it reads just like poetry and it’s a dreamy kind of prose that wraps around the descriptive language like the chocolate coating on an ice cream.

‘The Passage’ is definitely along the vein of ‘The Walking Dead’ and all those other zombie survival horror stories everyone seems to be fascinated with this year. I’d have to say the most similar novel I’ve come across to this would be Stephen King’s ‘The Stand,’ right down to the vague underpinnings of religious themes. Other similar books include ‘Wool’ by Hugh Howey and ‘World War Z’ written by Max Brooks. They’re almost a study in human nature under extremely testing conditions – what we as a race will and won’t do to live, to love and to keep doing what we want to do all the way into the future. And it’s an intense study of the ferociousness of our fears, the depth of our desires and the simple kindness that we can give when we’re not being selfish idiots. Survival stories (‘The Passage’ definitely qualifies as one of these) have grittiness to them and make up a bunch of rules that are supposedly necessary under the brave new world of the novel, which is an interesting feat of imagination versus reality. Cronin walks along this thin line very well and creates a remarkable post-apocalyptic regime which I can only just imagine using the darkest, dankest corner of my mind’s eye.

Overall it is a sweet piece of literature, catering to an older audience of serious readers with intents of committing to the series. It does have a sequel published, ‘The Twelve,’ which details the evolution of the infected and draws even more characters into the main plot of Amy’s fight to save humanity. Be aware that there are a heap of characters in this series and it is at times difficult to keep track of them all, as the story spreads out into a kind of spider’s web determined to encompass the whole of America and stretch across a vast expanse of time. You have to be a fan of complexity and able to juggle multiple storylines well for the book to have its full effect but keep at it. Trek the journey with all those voices. The ending is nowhere in sight for this series yet, so expect some more books in future. All I can say is, bring it on. But please let me know your thoughts. I love comments, I love other opinions and the purpose of this blog is to get you to try something and see what you think of it. SophA