The Passage by Justin Cronin
Published by Orion Books / Gollancz, June 2010. (ARC copy received)
Review by Mark Yon
Well, I was warned. Three pages of comments at the front of this book, admittedly written by publishers and editors, cautioned me that I would lose sleep over reading this novel, that I would grab any spare moment to keep reading, have early nights to read in bed and the like.
Surely, I thought, looking at this intimidating tome, I was of stronger stuff. I’m a reviewer, I thought, I’ve heard it all before.
And yet, here I am, at the end, having picked the book up ‘just to try’ a few days ago, realising that I am another victim, totally given over to the book. Justin Cronin’s novel is a stunning novel, an ‘I am Legend’ for the 21st century.
OK. As you might expect with such a massive tome, it starts slowly. The first 250 pages take their time but they are relentless. In fact, the first 250 pages are probably a novel in themselves. They tell of Crichton-style genetic experiments, of blood-sucking creatures, their development and their eventual escape. We are introduced to Amy Bellafonte, a quiet little abandoned six-year old with unusual Wyndham-esque powers. Her protector is Brad Wolgast, an FBI agent with a closer attachment to Amy than should be. Anthony Carter is a Death Row prisoner given a choice, but an outcome he didn’t expect.
In the second part of the book things step sideways and we end up with a world a hundred years later – a post-apocalyptic Mad Max type world, where life has stabilised into a new pattern. Survivors now live a basic lifestyle in camps, in a constant battle against the virals, who are kept at bay by spotlights at night. We are introduced to a host of new characters, from Alicia, (the adopted Buffy-like militarist) to Michael (the mechanic) as they travel across America, looking for salvation and refuge.
Here the book becomes almost another book. Where the first part was tight and contemporary, here it can be much slower. There is perhaps too much of the book at the original camp, yet it still weaves its spell. I can see many readers finding this too long, that there’s elements that could be removed, that in places things become a little repetitive. And yet, there’s much to appreciate, if you stick with it. The repetition, the slow life, is part of the tale to tell.
Things move up a gear when the journey of a brave few begins, from California to a new life in Texas. Different again to what has preceded it, it does read rather like the script to an 80’s action movie, or perhaps Stephen King’s The Stand, though with characters that are a little less clichéd.
At the end, the return of older characters and events in past places leads to an ending that is odd, abrupt, and yet apt. I think many will question it, perhaps even wonder whether reading a book of such magnitude and length is worth that ending. But it is effectively appropriate, even if not everything is explained.
So, what makes you stick with it? Cronin has a gift with the prose, his observations intelligent, his style observant, yet clear. He would give Stephen King a run for his money. Where Cronin scores better than recent King, in my opinion, is the greater depth he provides to his characters. Much of the book’s length is spent adding those details that makes the characters real, and makes their characterisation stick. There are people here that you care for, that you want to know about. Even when the pace is slow, the extra depth makes results. This is a world you can see and feel.
There were lots of echoes of other tales here – from Peter Watts to Michael Crichton to John Wyndham to Cormac McCarthy to Richard Matheson and Bram Stoker to even Stephen King himself. This might make you think that you’ve read it all before. However, though the influences may be there, it is the telling that matters. And Justin tells it very well indeed. It’s not often that I can get to the end of nearly 800 pages and say that the journey is worthwhile, but this is one of them.
This is going to be a book for 2010. Forget Twilight and all the other post-apocalyse vampire wanabees. They are but simpering children compared to this. The Passage is the real deal. Adult. Mature. Epic. Classic.
Mark Yon, November 2009