Friday 23 July 2010

Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

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"Amy Harper Bellafonte is six years old and her mother thinks she's the most important person in the whole world. She is. Anthony Carter doesn't think he could ever be in a worse place than Death Row. He's wrong. FBI agent Brad Wolgast thinks something beyond imagination is coming. It is: the Passage.

"Deep in the jungles of eastern Colombia, Professor Jonas Lear has finally found what he's been searching for - and wishes to God he hadn't. In Memphis, Tennessee, a six-year-old girl called Amy is left at the convent of the Sisters of Mercy and wonders why her mother has abandoned her. In a maximum security jail in Nevada, a convicted murderer called Giles Babcock has the same strange nightmare, over and over again, while he waits for a lethal injection. In a remote community in the California mountains, a young man called Peter waits for his beloved brother to return home, so he can kill him. Bound together in ways they cannot comprehend, for each of them a door is about to open into a future they could not have imagined. And a journey is about to begin. An epic journey that will take them through a world transformed by man's darkest dreams, to the very heart of what it means to be human... and beyond."


When a book has made $5m before it's even been published, you know it's got to be something special. At the least, you can be sure several somebodies somewhere think it is. Or perhaps "special" isn't the right word: commercial, perhaps, is more on the money. As of this writing, The Passage has hardly hit store shelves, but that it is the literary phenomenon of 2010 - in the mode of Harry Potter, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Twilight - is in no doubt. It's been a sure thing since before the year even began: it was the subject of a high-stakes bidding war between publishers of such ferocity that it made the news; tens of thousands of ARCs went out late last year to reviewers the world over, achieving a fever pitch of publicity well in advance of release; it's been championed on USA Today; and the rights for the inevitable film adaptation have been bought for a whack of cash by Ridley Scott. Whether or not you're in the least bit interested in The Passage, it's been, and it will continue to be, impossible to ignore.

Hype is a funny old thing. At its most potent, its most prevalent, hype creates such a hurricane of sensation that the actual subject of all the calculated hoo-hah often get lost in the mix. By the time people remember that there's a book at the heart of this latest wave, and not just a whirling wall of watercooler wonderment, you'd think the thing itself would be so up against it that it could only fail to meet the sky-high expectations the hype and all that follows has instilled in us. You know how it goes. J. K. Rowling needs an editor, right? Don't you think the Millennium trilogy stretches its credibility a touch too far? And perhaps centuries-old sparkly vampires preying on teenage girls isn't so romantic, when you think about it.

Hype breeds expectation; huge hype, of the calibre that's paved the way for The Passage, breeds expectations of equal standing. But The Passage is that rarest of things: not only does it live up to every one of the promises its exhaustingly enthusiastic publicists, it positively exceeds them. You'd only be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring this book.

A few years from now, The Passage has it, the army discover a peculiar virus that scientists believe might prolong human life. Or rather, it discovers them. The fact-finding trip through the Bolivian rainforest goes horribly awry, but a secret cell of the government separates the expedition's findings from the blood-curdling tragedy of its execution and develop the virus in an isolated laboratory using conveniently disappeared death row inmates as guinea pigs. FBI agent Brad Wolghast has persuaded twelve convicted murderers to sign up - among them Anthony Carter - and it's sat easily enough with him so far. When his superiors order him to abduct a six year old girl, however, Wolghast's conscience catches up with him. The girl in question is Amy Harper Bellafonte, orphaned by her prostitute mother when a trick got horrifically out of hand. And one day, Amy will save the world.

That's how Justin Cronin begins his magnum opus - that's the plot summary of the first few hundred pages - and in any other case I'd hesitate to give so much away, but truly, it is only the beginning. In point of fact, it's pretty much the prologue. The Passage is a behemoth of a book. Clocking it at nearly 800 pages in hardcover, it's an intimidating thing in terms of its physicality, first of all; the sheer presence of this novel will be enough to turn heads. And The Passage is a tale of many parts.

The beginning represents the origin story of the manufactured terror that latterly despoils the world: Cronin calls them flyers, jumps, smokes, and a hundred other things, but cut right to the quick and they're vampires. But they're not your usual vamps - for one thing, they don't sparkle (although they do glow); there's nothing suave and seductive about these bloodthirsty creatures. A hundred years after Amy and Wolghast and the initial infection, the period during which the larger part of The Passage takes place, they hunt the barren landscape for survivors in vicious pods, though true humans are fewer and further between every day. The hundred or so inhabitants of a walled compound protected by harsh fluorescent lights believe they're the only people left alive, and for all intents and purposes they might as well be. When the lights threaten to go out, an unexpected visitor represents the only hope of a cadre of survivors who take to the world in search of a way to take the planet back.

The Passage is an honest-to-God epic the likes of which hasn't been seen since The Stand. This'll be blasphemy to some, but come to that, Cronin's tome is still more impressive than the novel many consider to be Stephen King's greatest. Certainly, it's better written than anything the so-called modern-day Dickens has produced in his career: in terms of characterisation and pacing, Cronin is surely King's equal; in terms of wordsmithing, however, he handily overcomes that author's awkward tendency towards the trite. The Passage can be pedestrian when the occasion calls for it - during action sequences Cronin's prose is snappy and matter-of-fact - but in between times his writing is considered, composed, even poetic. The Passage, you come to understand, is a passionate piece of fiction, honest and heart-felt. It chronicles any number of brutalities, awful things happen in almost every one of its seventy-some chapters - characters you've come to care for are killed indiscriminately; unsettling events are the order of the day, every day; enemies grow more powerful with every step our heroes take: our expectations become like so much dust on a windy day - and yet, against all the odds, it is an undercurrent of hope that drives Cronin's narrative. Hope, if not for a better today, then for a more tolerant tomorrow.

Hands down, The Passage is the best book I've read this year, and believe you me, I've read a lot of books this year. It has its faults, of course: its sprawling nature gives it a somewhat episodic feel that can be jarring at first, and the very middle fifth is perhaps a little baggy. But it begins brilliantly, ends with a deafening smack of surprise that will have you hungry for the next book in the series immediately, and in the interim, you'll find the experience of reading The Passage as compelling as any addiction. By turns pacey and exhilarating, tragic and touching, breathtaking in its scope and near-perfect in its execution, Justin Cronin handily inherits the mantle that Rowling, Larsson and Meyer have shared these past few years. You mightn't think a vampire apocalypse is the most likely candidate for the cultural zeitgeist to hone in on, but make no mistake: The Passage is this year's literary sensation, and for once, it deserves the attention.


The Passage
by Justin Cronin
June 2010, Orion Books

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  1. I didn't know if I should get it, but now you convinced me :) I'll add it on my must-read list!
    Thanks for this awesome review!!!

  2. Wow. A very hyping review. :) This has been, for me, the hype week: Inception + The passagem.

    But I've yet to watch and read any of those. But I certainly will.

  3. Thanks for that review Niall. I recently stood in the store with The Passage in my hands and read through the first 20 - 30 pages and though...."No, I'll wait and see what early reviews say."

    I'm sold. I'll be picking it up this weekend. Thanks, again.

  4. Well, see this is why I wanted you to read it :D Now you gone and done it and the Passage has been added to my wishlist. Funnily enough, the book is already out in translation here in the Netherlands, which is rare, because we even had to wait for the Harry Potter books for a few months to be translated.Not that it mattered to me, since I prefer reading in in English anyway, but I thought that was noteworthy in light of your mention of hype.

  5. I initially looked at it in the bookstore and said nah. Then downloaded the sample on my nook. Read the first three chapters and was hooked. Went out and bought the book.

  6. book budget just cracked. Yet one more purchase, slotted in...somewhere. Well, I don't know where, but I guess I've got no choice, at this point, do I?